Athena Liu has everything a young writer could want. Multiple best-sellers, critical acclaim, even a Netflix deal. Certainly those are the things her friend June Hayward wants and does not have. The achievement gap between the two former Yale classmates really eats at June, who can only begrudgingly acknowledge that Athena’s greater success might come down to her having more talent. More often, June privately grumbles about all the advantages Athena has had, like wealthy parents, English boarding schools, and tremendous support from her agent, editor, and publishing house. Where June’s debut novel was largely ignored upon release, even by the people meant to promote it, Athena’s novels have gotten full publicity campaigns and splashy reviews. In her absolute darkest moments, June indulges in the belief that Athena is only more successful than her because of her race. Athena is one of the diverse voices the industry is trying to forward, while June is just another white woman.
This stew of resentments leads June to commit an unthinkable act. When Athena dies in front of June in a freak accident, June leaves her apartment carrying the draft of her friend’s latest novel. It’s an epic novel set in World War I and focused on the largely unknown story of the Chines Labor Corps. June can tell from the first few pages that it’s got all the markings of a mega-hit novel. And what good is that to a dead author? Would it really be so bad if she finished the novel herself and got it published?
June, who also decided to publish under the name Juniper Song (it’s her real first and middle names due to her mother’s hippie phase, and just coincidentally is more ethnically ambiguous), is the narrator of Yellowface, and a master at rationalization and self-delusion. To a lesser scale of depravity, she’s reminiscent of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. Creating this fully-realized monster is just one part of what author R.F. Kuang is up to, though. She’s also intent on satirizing the publishing industry, social media, and just maybe the art of fiction writing itself.
June’s plan is, on the face of it, absurd. Kuang has to lay out several contrivances just to make it mildly plausible that even someone as deluded as this narrator could think they’d get away with it. Kuang has a lot of fun with June’s indignance when a few reviewers and bloggers note the similarities to her dead friend’s work. As the story catches on and becomes part of the dreaded “discourse,” Kuang delights in portraying the machinations of the publishing industry going to work to protect one of their own, whether or not they deserve it. She also puts June through the all too familiar trajectory of the internet kerfuffle. Hot takes delivered by vengeful critics, over-the-top reaction videos from BookTok teenagers, and unhinged Twitter threads from both extremes of the political spectrum. One of the central tensions of the novel is that the online mob that forms against June is ill-informed, ugly, vile, completely divorced from reality, but also absolutely right. June is offended as anyone would be by the invective directed her way, but seems to have lost sight that at bottom the accusations are factually correct. It’s amusing and infuriating all at once.
Reading Yellowface is a frustrating, slippery experience. Kuang’s commitment to realism occasionally makes the novel feel unserious, but let’s face it, so much of modern life is ridiculous. She captures the way that social media brings out the worst in us perfectly. June’s tormentors jump to conclusions immediately, polarize into warring camps over minor disagreements, and inevitably resort to childish name-calling and death threats. It’s a dynamic that will be recognizable to anyone with a Twitter account. And for as much as June Hayward is a triumph as a sustained creation, she’s a hard person to spend an entire novel with. Her justifications, projections, and attempts to make herself the victim are all maddening, even if each adds shades to her finely drawn characterization. Kuang is also smart enough to give June occasional moments where she is honest or vulnerable enough to earn some sympathy before returning to her villainy.
Yellowface is a tough novel to grade. It’s definitely something I appreciated more than I enjoyed. Kuang definitely achieved what she set out to achieve, but the experience of reading it was not made better by knowledge of that fact. I will also say, without spoilers, that I thought the ending was somewhat trite and undercut the delicate shading that lead up to it. The extremity of the plot’s resolution felt out of place and jarring, a sour note to close out on. Intentionally so, to be sure, but still.
I’d be reluctant to recommend Yellowface to a friend, but I imagine it would produce a fruitful conversation for a book club, especially one with members who are a bit too online.