Serious Playfulness in Charles Yu’s ‘Interior Chinatown’

Author Charles Yu’s fourth book, the June California Book Club selection, subverts genre and form to reveal truths about American society.

charles yu, interior chinatown
Dustin Snipes

Somewhere along the way, we decided there was nothing serious about having fun. We expect award winners to signal their importance with somberness. Stories that delight in playfulness—that sparkle with humor and shine with formal inventiveness—are rarely contenders for the Great American Novel. Thankfully, Charles Yu bucks the trend with the acclaimed and National Book Award–winning Interior Chinatown, which is filled with sharp satire, clever humor, and mind-bending ideas.

The novel is no anomaly in Yu’s oeuvre. Throughout his writing career, he has explored two sandboxes in particular: genre and form. Open a Charles Yu story and you might encounter anything from superheroes and zombies to dragons and detectives. But these characters will be remixed and infused with psychological depth, and their stories might be told in surprising literary forms such as an email chain, a multiple-choice test, or—in the case of Interior Chinatown—a screenplay. Perhaps we could combine genre and form to say that Yu’s work has long investigated storytelling and how the shape of our stories produces our reality. Metafiction, you might call what Yu writes. Though his metafiction is never mere cleverness for cleverness’s sake. His fiction asks, What do our methods of storytelling say about ourselves? Our culture? Our history?

Take “Fable,” a story published in the New Yorker in 2016 that features a depressed man who learns to rethink his life by retelling it—at the behest of a therapist—as a fairy tale. Or Yu’s debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which follows a time-machine mechanic named Charles Yu who rewrites his story by zipping through time. In these tales and others, Yu probes how our telling of stories shapes our lives in delightful and illuminating ways.

Interior Chinatown carries his signature metafictional exploration to a new form and genre (or genres). Written as a screenplay for a police procedural in which the characters themselves are trapped, the novel pays homage to classic American screen stories like buddy-cop shows, family sitcoms, and courtroom dramas but also subverts their conventions. Our protagonist is a man named Willis Wu, who wants to be a hero. He strives to fit himself into a story that others have written:


Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.

You are not Kung Fu Guy.

You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.

Maybe tomorrow will be the day.

From the first page, the reader sees Yu’s puckish humor as well as his audaciousness. A novel written both in the form of a screenplay and from the second-person point of view? It’s quite funny and fearless, but Yu’s comedy has serious concerns. One of those is the complexities of racial identity in America, a country that loves to squeeze anyone who doesn’t count as the “neutral” straight white male into a tidy stereotype. The angry Black woman. The bitter feminist. The model minority. Etc. These stereotypes are obviously harmful, but American capitalism always stands ready to provide warped incentives to reinforce them. Interior Chinatown literalizes this disturbing truth.

Yu’s characters are actors who must audition for the limited set of roles that damage them on the police procedural Black and White and other shows or films: Asiatic Seductress, Wizened Chinaman, Kung Fu Guy. Hey, at least the pay is better than when you’re Dead Beautiful Maiden Number One or Egg Roll Cook. The title of the show, Black and White, reflects the identities of the lead cops while also naming the racial binary American culture is often reduced to. Yu pulls off a tightrope act by simultaneously commenting on the harmful practices of Hollywood and demonstrating a feature of American society in general: “They get hero lighting, designed to hit their faces just right. Designed to hit White’s face just right, anyway.” The novel’s formal inventiveness allows for deep emotion to coexist with comedy. There’s a sadness to this passage that is tucked into the margin of a page:

Take what you
can get.

Try to build
a life.

A life
at the

made from
bit parts.

One of the truths that Yu exposes is that the stereotypes American society pushes on Asian Americans (and, by extension, other groups) are scripted fictions. The model minority is a cliché—a flat character with no more complexity than Background Oriental Male. Yet Interior Chinatown shouldn’t be reduced to a social satire of race and Hollywood. Yu employs and subverts a variety of genres, making the novel a family saga and a love story, a postmodern farce and a tender bildungsroman. Through Yu’s experiments with genre and form, Interior Chinatown reminds us that our life stories are never singular and we can always change the story we tell ourselves.

Oh, and did I mention that the novel is just a whole lot of fun?•

Join us on June 15 at 5 p.m., when Yu will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Interior Chinatown. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.

Lincoln Michel is the author of Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press) and the novel, The Body Scout (Orbit), which was named one of the ten best SFF books of 2021 by The New York Times and one of the fifty best science fiction of all time by Esquire.
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