2020 being what it is, I’ve become attracted to books that offer humanistic guidance and emotional support. This summer I binged my way through most of George Saunders’ published works, book after book, engulfing stories about people facing hard times and trying to do the right thing. No one writes more powerfully and compassionately about this topic than Saunders. Reading him, you become imbued with a sense of concern for others and an acceptance of their flaws. You feel magnanimous, expansive, warm.
After finishing the last of his books, though, the warmth began to fade. I went to my local bookstore and asked for a something similar, something with heart and empathy. I left with Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which was wonderful but the opposite of what I needed: cold and detached, like a dream. I’d sort of given up hope — if it’s any indication, I’d started reading Sapiens — when the National Book Award winner was announced: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. And what did the NYT have to say about the novel? “[It] recalls the humorous and heartfelt short stories of George Saunders.” George Saunders! Apparently this isn’t a coincidence. I went on to learn that Yu is a huge fan of Saunders, so much so that he credits him with his start in writing. In an interview with Amazon he remarks that Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline “blew the doors off the empty little space that had previously housed my puny imagination.”
As it turns out, connections between the authors abound. Yu reviewed Tenth of December for the LA Review of Books. Both authors funded their writing careers with corporate jobs, Saunders working as a technical writer and Yu working as an in-house lawyer. A reviewer of Yu’s short story collection Sorry Please Thank You compared the authors, saying, “I don’t know that there’s a better story-bending talent at work than Yu since the rise of George Saunders.” All of this, plus Yu’s charming acceptance of the National Book Award — “I’m gonna go, uh, melt into a puddle right now” — compelled me to buy his celebrated new book.
In this review, I’ll examine Interior Chinatown in a Saundersian (Saundersy?) context, exploring themes and techniques reminiscent of the renowned short story author. If you’re new to Saunders, Joel Lovell’s NYT piece is a good place to start. I’ve also written about him. In particular, I will identify echoes of Saunders in three categories: defamiliarization, humor, and emotionality. Having established these similarities, I’ll call attention to what I think is the most significant difference between these authors, which is the way they choose to end their stories. I’ll conclude by answering two questions: does Interior Chinatown stand up to the Saundersian comparisons, and does it satisfy the need for humanistic literature?
Begin obligatory plot summary. Interior Chinatown tells the story of Willis Wu, a second-generation Taiwanese American living in Chinatown and trying to make it as an actor. He plays several bit roles on a TV cop drama called Black and White, which is shot inside the Chinese restaurant under the SRO (single room occupancy) apartment building where he and his parents live. Being of Asian descent, there is a ceiling to the characters Willis can play. He rises through the ranks, from Background Oriental Male to Oriental Guy Making a Weird Face to Special Guest Star, until he finally lands a chance at that most coveted role: Kung Fu Guy. But when Willis and a costar fall in love and have a daughter, Willis must choose between career and family — or does he? End obligatory plot summary.
This seemingly straightforward novel transcends convention by blending and bending fictional worlds. There’s a lot going on here. The book takes the form of a screenplay — set in a monospaced font, no less — which bolsters the Hollywood aesthetic and curtails the characters’ free will: they have to stay on script. Willis is the protagonist but the text is written in the second person, furthering the depiction of Willis as an everyman while involving the reader. The text repeatedly calls attention to its own artificiality, as backstories are framed and dramatized as montages fit for the screen. For example, Willis’s parents’ love story is recounted in a scene titled “INT. THE MOVIE VERSION OF HER LIFE — NIGHT,” in which these two “costars” exchange pithy, unrealistic lines:
DASHING ASIAN MAN
I’ve been looking for you.
PRETTY ASIAN HOSTESS
That so? And now that you’ve found me, what do you have to say for yourself? (131–2)
The novel’s reality is thus a Hollywood caricature of our own, with every character playing the role assigned to him or her by society. The Black detective in Black and White — a.k.a. “Black Dude Cop” — is reduced to a generic TV persona: “Tall and built… Fade tight, edges perfect, skin flawless… Youngest in department history to ever make detective… Miles Turner is no ordinary cop” (41) The description is delightfully tongue-in-cheek; how many cops on TV have been described as “no ordinary cop”? Ditto with his partner, Sarah Green, a.k.a. “White Lady Cop”: “pretty but tough but emphasis on the pretty… the kind of gal that orders draft beer if it’s available… Also, pretty. In case that wasn’t clear already. Very very pretty” (40). Turner and Green get the major roles, of course, while the minor roles are played by the Asian Americans living in the SRO building. By assigning roles along ethnic and racial lines, Interior Chinatown exaggerates this aspect of our society, and the variable narrative structure continually challenges the reader to disambiguate between performance and reality.
This ontologically complex style produces an effect known in the literary community as defamiliarization. By taking something normal (here, the subtle but very real effect of one’s ethnicity on available societal roles) and portraying it an unfamiliar way (i.e., as the sole determinant of one’s role in a TV drama), Yu invites the reader to consider something familiar in a new light: he defamiliarizes us to it. The term was coined over a hundred years ago by the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who illustrated the idea through selections from Tolstoy’s writing. A story told from the point of view of a horse, for example, made the notion of private property seem bizarre (Shklovsky 3). Defamiliarization is not restricted to such outlandish modes of narration, however. Shklovsky posits that “defamiliarization is found almost everywhere form is found” (5). Still, I think Shklovsky would agree that there’s a spectrum. Most contemporary novels portray situations as normally as possible to establish continuity between the reader’s world and the fictional one. This is even true of many science fiction novels, where society’s norms prevail despite significant advances in technology or literary inventions such as magic. Interior Chinatown, by contrast, twists reality into a stilted, artificial version of itself for exactly the opposite reason: to present it to us anew.
Saunders, meanwhile, frequently occupies the same end of the spectrum as Yu, and defamiliarization is thus the first category in which I’d like to compare these authors. For a textbook example of defamiliarization at work in Saunders’ writing, consider his fable Fox 8. The eponymous character and narrator is a fox that has learned English à la Frankenstein’s monster. When a shopping mall is erected near his habitat, Fox 8, who has never seen one before, goes to investigate and offers the following description of this puzzling new building:
Yumans wud go: You kids stop fiting, we’re at the Mawl, kwit, kwit it, if you don’t stop fiting how wud you like it if we just skip the Mawl and you can get rite to your aljuhbruh, Kerk? Or, speeking into a small box, a Yuman mite go, I have to run, Jeenie, I’m just now Par King at the Mawl! Or one Yuman slaps the but of a sekond, and the slapt one leens in, kwite fond, going, Elyut, you kil me. (16)
The notion that a Fox could learn English and eavesdrop at a mall is a fantasy, as is the notion that all Asian Americans live in Chinatown and play minor roles in a TV drama. These premises, however, provide a novel take on reality. Fox 8’s naive description points out some admittedly unnatural behavior we “Yumans” exhibit in public without a second thought, while Yu’s TV-drama world concretizes the invisible social structures we take for granted.
One of the pleasures of Interior Chinatown is how it plays off of this defamiliarization. Much of the novel’s humor derives from exploiting the space between the TV-drama world and our own, exploits that I frequently found laugh-out-loud funny. Take, for instance, the scene where Willis’s crush and costar Karen Lee admits to having feelings for him:
“And by the way, I think I might like you. Maybe. A little.”
LOVE STORY FOR A GENERIC ASIAN MAN???
LOVE STORY FOR A GENERIC ASIAN MAN???
For real? (166)
Note the interplay between Willis’s (our) internal monologue and the structure of the screenplay. Are we/Willis writing the script, or is it simply mirroring our/his surprise? The scene continues:
You and Karen. The scene is set. Take your places. She’s a tourist, you’re a Delivery Guy. You can’t stop looking at her.
BEGIN ROMANTIC MONTAGE
Are we starting already?
SPECIAL GUEST STAR
And for some inexplicable reason, she likes you.
I guess we’re starting.
SPECIAL GUEST STAR
Because look at you.
And look at me.
Why are we talking like this?
“Sorry,” you say. “Force of habit.”
“I don’t want to practice dating, Will. I want to actually date.” (167)
The scene occurs in two planes. There’s the TV-drama world, where Karen and Willis might have a real relationship. But Willis immediately diverts the conversation into a fictionalized world where he plays a delivery guy and she plays a tourist, which is the only way for him to process Karen’s feelings for him. To Karen, the distance between these planes is akin to that between practicing dating and actually dating, between acting and living. It’s a refreshing twist on the pretty-girl-falls-for-average-guy trope in which the guy messes things up by overthinking them. At another point, Willis gets in his head and Karen interrupts him: “Hey Will, you still there? Lost in your internal monologue?” (163). Defamiliarization thus creates space for vibrant forms of humor, which is our second category of comparison.
Saunders is a master of this technique, as many of his stories are set in hyperbolic projections of our own. And in the gap between these worlds comedy thrives. A story will often combine a bleak situation with an exaggerated feature of reality, yielding darkly funny results. In his short story “Pastoralia,” a pair of coworkers facing layoffs + unrealistically cringe-worthy letters from management = a hilarious dystopian reflection on capitalism. In “The 400-Pound CEO,” an office worker accidentally killing his boss to save a girl’s life + an exceedingly unfair judge = depressing yet amusing reminder that no good deed goes unpunished. This formula, which buttresses much of Saunders’ fiction, can be found behind many of the comedic moments in Yu’s novel.
Saunders has been called the best short-story writer in English and the writer for our time, and he has not earned these accolades through his creativity and humor. What sets him apart is the tremendous heart that suffuses his writing, which brings us to our third and final category of comparison: emotionality. As Alex Millen has written, “it is precisely this affective element of [Saunders’] fictional project that has attracted such high praise from the American literary establishment.” I highly recommend Millen’s essay for anyone seeking to understand the many facets of Saunders’ emotional register. While the mechanics behind his affective prowess remain somewhat mysterious, the effect is well understood: it’s the literary equivalent of getting the wind knocked out of you. It frequently involves intense empathy for a character who, having tried and failed to do the right thing, gets bowled over by a wave of guilt/helplessness/nostalgia. Often it comes at the end of a story or chapter, the better to let it echo.
Yu produces a similar effect in several places within his novel. The description of the SRO building where Willis and his family live contains some of the novel’s most affective writing. For example, there’s the broken shower pan up on the ninth floor, which sends water cascading into the lower floors whenever someone leaves the tap on too long:
One time it went all the way down to six and soaked the little seat cushion that Baby Huang was sleeping on facedown, and Baby Huang sucked gray water through nylon for a couple minutes before her mom woke up to the dripping on her own head, found her little girl looking a strange color. (61)
This sentence captures myriad aspects of this horrible moment — the wretchedness of the water that has seeped through three floors of an apartment building, the cheapness of the seat cushion, the small tragedy that a baby is using a seat cushion as a mattress in the first place — in simple language. This is pure Saunders and Yu probably knows it, because he wrote about Saunders’ penchant for simple yet perfect descriptions in his review of Tenth of December:
[Saunders has] given us the phrase, etched for all time now in the annals of literature, “large comfortable butt,” and I am not kidding when I say that this butt is exactly what makes Saunders a genius. This is him, wielding his sharpest, lightest sketching pencil — could any other writer have gotten us from A to B quicker? Have there ever been two more perfectly chosen adjectives for “butt”?
I feel the same way about “sucked gray water through nylon.” Could any other phrase have communicated the fragility and tragedy of the situation as quickly and effectively? These moments sneak up on you, and this is especially true of what I consider the novel’s most poignant passage. It’s at the end of the section, in an ostensibly superfluous aside about why Asian businessmen love to sing John Denver songs at karaoke:
[Try] not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time [the karaoke singer] gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home. (66)
The brilliance of a sentence like this is that it allows a silly observation to broaden into something thematic, which is really what these authors are all about. Read enough Saunders and you’ll find that he doesn’t do grandiose. He writes short stories about small people struggling to get ahead. Interior Chinatown is made up of the same stuff: humble observations that punch above their weight.
Having laid out three areas in which these authors’ styles align — defamiliarization, humor, and emotionality — I will now turn to the most significant area in which they diverge: endings. To understand this divergence, let’s start with a summary of how Interior Chinatown ends. Willis forgoes the chance of becoming Kung Fu Guy and leaves Chinatown to be with his daughter and now ex-wife in the suburbs. But in typical story-arc fashion, he returns home because, well, he’s under arrest. This takes some explaining.
See, in the beginning of the novel, there’s a somewhat throwaway plot point in the TV show Black and White involving the disappearance of an Asian man. We’re not told who has disappeared or why it matters, but it seems loosely connected to a murder on the show. Separately, in the reality Willis lives in, we learn about a mysterious and awesome dude referred to as “Older Brother,” who is described as “the guy you dreamt about growing up to be” (25). He briefly played Kung Fu Guy in the show back when Willis was a kid, but something happened and he hasn’t been back in a long time.
Fast-forward to the end. Willis gets arrested and brought to stand trial for The Case of The Missing Asian. Older Brother, having attended Harvard Law in his years away, returns to serve as Willis’ lawyer. The trial, being A) a total sham and B) part of a Black and White episode, makes effective use of both meanings of the term “show trial.” Ostensibly, Willis is being charged with Older Brother’s disappearance, but Older Brother is in the court room defending Willis, so who is the real Missing Asian? We learn the answer in this climactic reveal:
There was another guy who disappeared.
(points at you)
I’m on trial for my own disappearance?
Welcome to Black and White.
Am I the suspect? Or the victim?
That’s what we’re here to decide.
The novel’s conclusion brings everything together, both plot-wise and thematically, with the dramatic flair you’d expect of a Hollywood ending. A lot happens. A brief history of America’s anti-Chinese immigration policies is presented. Older Brother delivers an impassioned defense, arguing that Willis is both the victim of America’s racial dialectics — i.e., he “will never fit into Black and White” — and at the same time responsible for his own so-called disappearance — i.e., he “allowed himself to become Generic” (234, 241). The jury finds Willis guilty. Willis then delivers his own rambling defense, ultimately deciding to shed the ethnicity-defined roles he’s been chasing in favor a new role: not Kung Fu Guy or even Kung Fu Dad but instead “just dad” (255). At the end of Willis’ speech, he and Older Brother begin literally kicking down the walls of the racist American legal establishment, fighting off waves of cops and SWAT members, until Willis gets shot and his TV-show character dies. Chinatown crumbles, its inhabitants liberated from society’s invented Asian-American cage. Willis reunites with Karen. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The reason I went into this much detail about the conclusion was to underscore Yu’s commitment to a perfect resolution. The story could have ended in many different ways, and the chosen ending seems forced and contradictory. For example, Willis engages in violence only moments after praising Older Brother for “fulfilling his destiny with his mouth and his brain instead of his hands and his feet” (240). The court scene imposes a litany of legal and historical lessons upon the reader, often clumsily. Even Willis doesn’t seem to understand Older Brother’s defense, saying that he has “seriously no clue” what he was talking about (241). The significance of the name Black and White is hammered home at least three times (230, 234, 250). By all appearances, Yu must have felt pressure to tie things up so completely and joyfully.
It is a characteristic that separates him from Saunders, who rarely if ever provides the kind of total resolution found in Interior Chinatown and who doesn’t seem to believe in happy endings. “Pastoralia” ends with the main character feeling guilty for ratting out his coworker. The protagonist in “The 400-Pound CEO” gets sentenced to life in prison. Even his children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip ends with less cheese than Interior Chinatown: “Life got better. Not perfect, but better” (73–6).
I’m not arguing against happy endings in general or saying that Interior Chinatown would’ve been a better book had it ended differently. However, I think it’s worth considering why Saunders typically chooses morose and ambiguous conclusions for his stories. Luckily for us, he pretty much spells it out in the end of Fox 8, in a letter from the title character to us Yumans:
Reeding my Story bak just now, I woslike: O no, my Story is a bumer. There is the deth of a gud pal, and no plase of up lift, or lerning a leson. The nise Fox’s first Groop stays lost, his friend stays ded.
If you Yumans wud take one bit of advise from a meer Fox? By now I know that you Yumans like your Storys to end hapy?
If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser. (47–8)
For all the zaniness and fantasy in his stories, Saunders nevertheless insists on grounding his conclusions in our cold reality. It’s as if he wants to remind us that life is still too hard for too many people and we have to do something about it. Being niser is a start.
Earlier, I promised answers to two questions: does Interior Chinatown stand up to the Saundersian comparisons, and does it satisfy the need for humanistic literature? To the former I’m delighted to say that yes, I think it does. Is it something that Saunders would write? Of course not. Too much is explained, there’s not enough darkness, and the ending’s too cheery. But is it written in the same emotional register and with the same penchant for capturing life’s small details? Absolutely.
As for the latter question, the answer is no. After all, reading a wonderfully humanizing book doesn’t satisfy your need for humanistic literature, it expands it — and so the search continues.