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In ‘Disorientation,’ a college campus is fertile ground for absurdist comedy

The university campus, with its cloistered, hyperlocal concerns, has always been fertile ground for absurdist comedy. Think of recent TV shows such as “The Chair” and “Dear White People,” or the novels “Bunny,” by Mona Awad, and Kingsley Amis’s standard-bearer “Lucky Jim.” Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel “Disorientation” is the latest entry into this evergreen category. The hyperactive satire is so consistently funny it almost makes the reader forget about the serious societal issues that undergird the humor.

Ingrid Yang is a hapless 29-year-old PhD candidate at a small university in Massachusetts, floundering on a dissertation about the school’s most famous former professor, the fictive, late Chinese poet Xiao-Wen Chou. Ingrid procrastinates by eating junk food and writing erotica, “discreetly enclosed in a folder entitled Taxes.” After checking out an archive box at the library, Ingrid finds a stranger’s message to her, then begins to play amateur sleuth. Who wrote the note? She eventually discovers the stranger’s name is John Smith, a wealthy donor to the university’s Xiao-Wen Chou archive. Why is he so interested in Chou? Ingrid soon learns that John Smith is Chou. Smith, a White man, wrote the poems and dressed up as the poet for 35 years, using eyelid tape and yellowface makeup. After Ingrid anonymously reveals her findings on a website, protests by students of color break out against a nearly all-White faculty that expresses sympathy for Smith.

The premise of “Disorientation” is based on a real-life controversy. In 2015, the “Best American Poetry” anthology featured a poem by Yi-Fen Chou, who turned out to be Michael Derrick Hudson, a middle-aged White man. Frustrated by literary rejection, Hudson began submitting work under a Chinese pseudonym.

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As a comedic heroine, Ingrid is easy to root for, due mainly to her bumbling nature and the fact that she’s surrounded by White people of dubious character. Chief among them is her “plain” fiance Stephen, “a medium-brown-haired man of medium height and medium intelligence with a below-average-sized heart.” A literary translator, he’s recently been awarded his first major contract: a Japanese autofiction novel named “Pink Salon” about an 18-year-old sex worker. When the author visits the campus to embark on a months-long book tour with Stephen, Ingrid is annoyed to find that the pretty young “anime-character-come-to-life” dresses “like an eighteenth-century milkmaid.” While Stephen is gone, Ingrid finds that he also has a computer folder named “Taxes,” but his contains photos of his ex-girlfriends, all Asian, leading Ingrid to wonder whether their love has ever been real or if she’s just another object of a White man’s Asian fetish.

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Another villainous White man is Michael Bartholomew, Ingrid’s dissertation adviser who eventually rises to dean of students. Michael, who’s “commanding and assertive,” has a Chinese wife who prefers “to blend into the decor.” He buys Chinese egg tarts for the student lounge, plays with his Baoding balls during office hours and, as dean, becomes the campus’s leading anti-cancel-culture spokesperson, penning and publishing a manifesto entitled “In Defense of Freedom.”

Admirably, the book doesn’t just take shots at problematic White people. Supporting characters highlight unsavory aspects of the Asian American experience as well. Alex, the brother of Ingrid’s best friend, Eunice, spends time on online forums devoted to Asian American men’s rights and ridicules Ingrid for being a “white boy chaser.” Eunice and Ingrid’s friendship “had been constructed on the hatred of another Asian woman,” Ingrid’s performatively woke classmate Vivian Vo.

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On occasion, Chou shoots for laughs over character consistency and plausibility. In the early parts of the novel, Ingrid is such a political naif that she doesn’t know what the word “triggering” means, making “a mental note to look it up later,” despite having been on a university campus for nearly a decade. In the span of a few chapters, Michael goes from being merely patronizing to virulently racist, someone who would call Ingrid a “true specimen of the Oriental race” to her face.

Despite these speed bumps, “Disorientation” does what great comedies and satires are supposed to do: make you laugh while forcing you to ponder the uncomfortable implications of every punchline. In this book’s universe, for example, the authenticity of every interracial relationship is questioned. Chou’s novel is a promising debut, one that makes this reader look forward to what she will make fun of next.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently “No Good Very Bad Asian.” His work has appeared in publications such as NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle and Salon.

Disorientation

By Elaine Hsieh Chou

Penguin Press. 416 pp. $28

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