I read Charles Yu's first novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe back in 2011 and really enjoyed it at the time, though it is sorely overdue a reread. This one was immediately on my radar when it came out last year, but I wasn't buying new books in 2020. I finally got to it this past week, and in the interim it won the National Book Award.
I love a gimmick in a novel if it fits the material, and this gimmick fits perfectly. A novel about the precise boundaries of Asian success in Hollywood in the form of a screenplay more by someone who has spent years in writers rooms for television shows. I was expecting a funnier version of satire, but I really loved the direction it went instead. Not that it isn't funny at times; it is. The entire story is set in a Chinatown and more specifically in a set of high rises over a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The main character is Willis Wu, grew up there and is now typecast as Generic Asian Man, mostly doing bit and background parts in a crime show called Black and White, though he longs to be Kung Fu Guy.
But the book shifts from satire to a moving account of Asian life in America. Sometimes didactic fiction bothers me, but once I started thinking of this more as a parable, I got past any qualms I had about it. It feels like an essential account of the, or at least an, Asian American experience, especially given the turn national attitudes have taken in the past couple of years.
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