|Ever since you were a boy, you've dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy. You are not Kung Fu Guy. You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you've been practicing. Maybe tomorrow will be the day."|
"Interior Chinatown" is the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. I think what won the award is its unique structure. It's written as a screenplay, but it blends what's happening on the screen with what's happening in real life. Characters say their lines, but then, out of character, they say asides to each other. It's not always obvious where the screenplay ends and real life begins.
The main character in the novel is Willis Wu, a Taiwanese-American, although his curse is that Americans don't distinguish between countries in Asia. He's universally thought of an Asian-American, whereas what he really desires is to be treated just as an American. He points out that Asians have been in America for 200 years, longer than other immigrant groups. Willis Wu has "a dream of going from Generic Asian Man to just plain Generic Man." But the question never goes away: "Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like?"
Willis Wu's chosen career is acting. Being Asian-American, his roles are limited. He gets regular gigs on a cop show called "Black and White" starring a Black male detective and white female detective. Willis Wu's roles are limited to, as he describes it, "Generic Asian Guy." Actually, he starts even lower than that, as "Background Oriental Male" or even "Dead Asian Man." What he dreams of, what he's dreamed of since boyhood, is the one and only starring role open to Asian-Americans in Hollywood, "Kung-Fu Guy." But all too often he dies. And when an actor's character dies, the actor has to wait 45 days before casting directors will hire him again. Apparently, that's how long it takes TV audiences to forget a "Generic Asian Guy."
Much of the story, both the "Black and White" screenplay and real life, takes place in one building in Chinatown, with a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor and single-room-occupancy (SRO) rooms in the eight floors above. I had never heard the term SRO before. I guess that's a sign of First World privilege on my part. "In an SRO you think in all three dimensions. A room isn’t a layout, a footprint, it’s a space, a volume, and when you start to understand that, you can’t believe how much volume there is in here. You hang things, and you hang things on those things. You stack and pile and cram, you make use of every available cubic unit of your life, not just a floor plan or a schematic. You find hidden spaces within a hollow object, a hamper or a laundry basket, a box of dried tea leaves, a cookie tin, things inside things inside things."
It's paragraphs like that that make "Interior Chinatown" a superior piece of writing. It's what makes novels in general different from visual arts like movies. Both can show crowded rooms, but in the hands of a talented writer, a novel can explain the necessity, the mother of invention, behind the crammed belongings, showing not just the what, but the why.
Paragraphs like the following also make this novel stand out from the usual storytelling.
In the shadows is OLD ASIAN MAN, 70s. Turner draws his weapon, steady and calm. Green draws her piece as well, flicks the safety off, finger on the trigger. She looks uncharacteristically nervous.
TURNER Who’s there?
GREEN Hands where we can see them.
They’re going to shoot him. You have to say something. But how can you? You don’t have any lines.