It’s not easy. For the past century or so, American movies and television have relegated Asian characters and actors to the margins, with few exceptions. Generic Asian Man — he has a name, Willis Wu — is stuck playing Background Oriental Male. If he’s lucky, he might get to speak a few words as Delivery Guy.
Willis is trapped in these roles — not just as an aspiring actor but as a character on a page. That’s because this novel is written in the form of a Hollywood screenplay.
It’s all in Courier font. The descriptions, including the title, are in a shorthand used in scripts. Dialogue sits in the middle of the page with wide margins and centered character names.
This stripped-down format is the perfect delivery system for the satire of “Interior Chinatown.” Ridiculous assumptions pop.
Readers may know author Charles Yu as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree or remember his popular 2010 novel, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.” Television aficionados might recognize him for his work as a writer and story editor for HBO’s “Westworld” and as co-producer on FX’s “Legion.”
Yu was among a wave of novelists who moved to television, and it’s as if he’s returned from another world with a mission to blend the two.
While sticking to the screenplay form, Yu bends it enough to go deeper — long descriptive passages become mini short stories. In these narratives, we learn about Willis’s past, his parents, his friends and the strange Chinatown they inhabit.
All the Asian characters live together in a crummy apartment building above a Chinese restaurant. They are Korean and Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese and Thai, and second- or third-generation Americans — yet they’re all lumped together, Generic Asians above the Golden Palace.
It’s a community of poor families, cooking on hot plates, worrying about each other, having celebrations. Boys fight, bond and practice martial arts. An absent, idealized older brother is held up as a model of success.
“You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity,” Willis explains, “but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.”
There’s one main show that he’s cast in, a “Law & Order” spoof called “Black and White,” with two sexy detectives solving crimes while flirting with each other. Willis lands tiny parts, then slowly gets better roles.
He’s proud of the work but frustrated by the stereotypes he plays. He sees that the African American and white leads on the show have full-fledged characters while he’s forced to perform with a fake foreign accent.
He complains about it to his fellow actors. One replies, “Look what you made yourself into. Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system. It strengthens it.”
Although this conversation takes place during a break from shooting, so the characters are just having a conversation, the book never breaks the screenplay form — their words are trapped in the script format. The performances within the show and the real life of the story blend and overlap. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Tom Stoppard’s famous play, the characters see and comment on the artifice of their creation.
It’s mind-bending storytelling, not easy to pull off. Yu does it with panache. Now they’re shooting, now they’re talking, a fantasy sequence becomes real, all in screenplay format.
Is there even a world outside “Interior Chinatown?” Forget it, Jake. I mean Willis.
After Willis falls in love and has a daughter, he can see a way to break free. Taking that path, however, has complications. All knotted up together are his ambition and professional limitations, happiness and desire, assimilation and identity.
In Paul Beatty’s satire “The Sellout,” which won the 2016 Man Booker Prize, a character takes American racial prejudice to such an extreme that he winds up in court. So, too, does Willis.
This is risky: A writing classroom rule is “show, don’t tell,” and courtrooms are built for telling. A message will be delivered. It might be a straight shot of truth.
“They zoned us, kept us roped off from everyone else,” Willis’s lawyer declares. “Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture and exoticism.” The riff continues, pulling the lens back from Hollywood to America as a whole.
Is there a role for Generic Asian Man that’s less stereotypical than Kung Fu Guy? Would Generic Man be better? Maybe in 2020, this book asks us to imagine, we can figure out another way to break down the boundaries we’ve created.
Carolyn Kellogg, the former books editor of the Los Angeles Times, is a writer and editor in Alabama.
By Charles Yu
Pantheon. 270 pp. $25.95