The narrative structure and storytelling of Charles Wu’s quick-read “Interior Chinatown” are like no other novel I’ve read—and I’ve read a lot of them. It’s part screenplay for a cop show—Black and White—being filmed at the Golden Palace restaurant, and part interior monologue of the protagonist Willis Wu, who plays Generic Asian Man/Dead Asian Man/Background Oriental in the margins of the show, but craves the more coveted and visible role of Kung Fu Guy.
Willis lives upstairs from the restaurant/set with his parents, and he may in fact work in the restaurant. It’s never made clear if he is an actor or an employee or both, but either way, he is definitely struggling with racism and stereotypical views of Asians in the United States.
Despite our country’s history of marginalizing, discriminating against, legislating against, and violating the rights of Asians—with a number of laws and court cases brought to the forefront in the narrative—a single line in the book basically sums up Willis’ situation and state of being:
“. . . you somehow feel that your oppression, because it does not include the original American sin—of slavery—that it will never add up to something equivalent . . . Your oppression is second class.”
The story of Willis, his parents, and his own brief marriage and ensuing fatherhood is amusing and despairing at the same time.
To get such a serious message across, while writing a darkly funny and highly entertaining novel, requires the skill of a very talented and original writer: meet Charles Yu.