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Interior Chinatown

Charles Yu • 2020

I absolutely see why this won the National Book Award, and deservedly so: the criticisms, so trenchant, wrapped in a postmodern fantasy, so clever, and delivered in a wry and outrageous voice. I loved — loved! — the first half of this book, and loved everything that it was trying to do and how it set out in doing so. The commitment to the form was superb.

The back half of the book is where the love affair faded into a more muted but still positive sentiment. I think the shift in perspective away from Willis and into other folks — that is, Wu shifting from talking about his life and how his life informs the greater world into fifteen-minute montages that are meant to humanize our ancillary characters but instead somehow cheapen them further — was a painful one, and everything in the final third felt B.A.-level hackneyed (rescued only by the framing device and voice, both of which remained pristine.) The stuff with Karen and Phoebe — I mean, that was some truly terrible writing, the best interpretation of which I can give is “well the joke is that they’re two-dimensional caricatures so whatever.”

That’s harsh, I know, but I really did think this book was special. It had such a specific clarity in its first half that it affords a significant amount of goodwill, and I’d recommend reading it (it’s so short! so expedient!) just to see what it’s going for, and then decide if you want to stick around for the cavalcade of monologues once Yu decided that it’s easier to turn subtext into text.

6/25/2022
✭✭✭✭
Literature

Highlights

You pulled it off. First time ever. ...Or so you thought, so close to completing the move but then, as you land, your foot catching the edge of a plastic tray with your ma’s pot of oolong steeping inside. The tray now tracing out its own arc through the air, everything in super- slow-mo, your mother’s face somehow remaining calm through it all, the only flicker in her expression one of momentary concern, as the pot of scalding tea nearly hits you on its way down. She catches it, or almost does, the bulk of the pot landing on her palm, which must be impervious to pain, because she doesn’t yell or cry out, simply takes it, absorbing the KUNG FU KID Someday, I’m going to be Bruce Lee. blow, all of the liquid heat and force and letting no harm come to your stupid little head. Already you can see the red marks forming on her wrist and forearm, burns that will peel then scar then darken and firm up into reminders you’ll see years later. After you’ve gone to bed, you’ll hear her walking up and down the hall, going door to door asking your neighbors for aloe, but no one has any or no one has any that they are willing to part with, so she’ll settle for a small glob of cold toothpaste daubed onto the spot, left there thick and mint-green. You lie awake, hearing her come back into the room, bracing yourself for her wrath or fury or guilt trip, but instead you get something else entirely. Tenderness. A softening in her eyes. It’s the only thing worse than anger: advice.
A simple action, done carefully, turns into something more.
Yes, yes, your kung fu is perfect. Immaculate, pristine, Platonically Ideal Kung Fu from the highest plane of martial arts. But, and we hate to ask this—can you still do the accent?
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© 2022 Justin Duke • I hope you're wearing your favorite sweater.