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Fun with Literary Gimmicks: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

November 29, 2020

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu has just won the 2020 Nation Book Award for Fiction. I appreciate literary awards because without them I would miss out on a bunch of award-winning books that I’ve never heard of.

Even though I read (or skim through) a lot of books, the beginning of Interior Chinatown threw me off because it’s written in 2nd person.

*****

Int Golden Palace

Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being kung Fu Guy./ You are not kung Fu Guy/You are currently Oriental Guy Making a Weird Face, but you’ve been practicing./Maybe tomorrow will be the day.

*****

The risk of opening in 2nd person is that the reader can deny the opening statement and stop reading:

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

Reader: No, I haven’t. (Gets annoyed, slams book shut, returns book to shelf)

Sigh! As a reader, I probably should go further to see what this narrator guy is talking about. A few pages later, the author/narrator explains how difficult it is for him to get a decent role in movies/television.

*****

Roles

First you have to work your way up. Starting from the bottom it goes:

  • Background Oriental Male
  • Dead Asian Man
  • Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy
  • Generic Asian Man Number Two/Waiter
  • Generic Asian Man Number One

and then if you make it that far (hardly anyone does) you get stuck at Generic Asian Man Number One for a while and hope and pray for the light to find you and when it does you’ll have something to say and when you say that something it will come out just right and have everyone in Black and White turning their heads saying wow who is that, that is not just some Generic Asian Man, that is a star, maybe not a real, regular star, let’s not get crazy, we’re talking about Chinatown here, but perhaps a Very Special Guest Star, which for your people is the ceiling, is the terminal, ultimate, exalted position for any Asian working in this world, the thing every Oriental Male dreams of when he’s in the Background, trying to blend in.

Kung-Fu guy.

Kung Fu guy is not like the other slots in the hierarchy-…

*****

And then the narrator talks some more about Kung Fu guy. The author/narrator’s obsession with kung fu threw me off a little bit because I thought nobody cares about kung fu anymore. Maybe 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago, but not now. When was the last time a kung-fu movie hit it big in the United States? Is it even a stereotype anymore?

If the author is making a point about Hollywood’s stereotyping, then part of me is… so what? All demographic groups complain about how they’re portrayed in Hollywood.

They’re not wrong. It’s just that everybody already knows that media relies on stereotypes, and I don’t need a novel (a form of media) pointing it out in the first few pages. From my point-of-view (a guy who doesn’t give a flip about actor problems), knowing the character first might have gotten me more interested in the book. But who am I to judge? The book just won an award.

Good job, Kung Fu Guy wannabe. Winning a National Book Award beats being Kung Fu Guy any day.

What do you think? Would you rather be Kung Fu Guy or win a major book award? How much of a book written in 2nd person can you read before you start denying the stuff the narrator is saying about you?

2 Comments
  1. You’re right – you don’t see a lot of books written in the second person, but I’m kind of intrigued. I might just give it a look-see. But I’ll get it, of course, from the library. I’m not paying for a book I might get annoyed with and slam the cover of!

    • Maybe you’ll like it. Just be prepared for the narrator to tell a bunch of lies about you… unless you’ve actually wanted to be Kung Fu Guy.

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