Vol. 1 Brooklyn: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

REINVENTING POSTMODERNISM: A REVIEW OF CHARLES YU’S “INTERIOR CHINATOWN”

JULY 28, 2020
by KURT BAUMEISTER

Charles Yu book cover

Once upon a time, when postmodernism was young—before it became what-the-hell-is-postmodernism-really(?) and post-postmodernism—unique literary conceits were enough to draw oohs and ahs from critics. Think of John Barth with the nested narrative loops and literary equations of Lost in the Funhouse; Nabokov with the fiction inside poetry inside criticism of Pale Fire; or Coover with his cinematic A Night at the Movies. Great as those works were in their time, the audacious formal tricks that defined them have, to a great extent, already been tried. The novel as screenplay…or treatment…or cinema, for example, has been done and done and done. So much that when I came to Charles Yu’s latest, Interior Chinatown, I wondered whether there could possibly be enough of a point to what seems primarily a formal experiment. Could Yu, a writer I confess to liking, even admiring, possibly do enough to justify publishing a novel like this in 2020? Then I read it. And, in this instance, at least, reading is believing.

Driven as Interior Chinatown is by the form and fragmentation of a screenplay, never mind its satirical focus, you wouldn’t expect it to pack the emotional heft it does. Maybe that has to do with the number of less-is-more choices Yu makes here, the way he pares down to the essential not only in terms of prose but in story and characterization. True, Interior Chinatown may be about big issues like family, culture, and society but this is fundamentally the story of one man. That man is Willis Wu, aspiring Kung Fu Guy (KFG). 

Having progressed through a litany of pre-determined Asian-American roles, including, of course, Generic Asian Man 1, 2, and 3, Willis is trapped in the diabolical TV industry that is Interior Chinatown’s America, a place where all that’s left for him is potential ascension to KFG, the pinnacle of Asian-American achievement. This arc of confined ambition and outwardly determined goals is one we see acted out by the rest of the book’s predominately Asian cast from Willis’ father (Old Asian Man) to his mother (Old Asian Woman) and love interest, Beautiful Asian Woman. But it’s in Willis’ “big break,” his guest role on Yu’s invented American cop show, Black and White: Impossible Crimes Unit (ICU) that the story achieves its greatest effect, more than earning its formal gymnastics. 

The satire is brilliantly sharp, here, the canvas an SVU sendup that perfectly encapsulates the struggles of people of color in America. Smart, funny, and an effortless read, this is a book that never comes across as a racial screed against any one group. Rather, Interior Chinatown is about America, where minorities often struggle to cling to memories of a distant homeland while embracing a new land that often seems, like the old one, to be honest, as though it doesn’t want them around.

***

Interior Chinatown
by Charles Yu
Pantheon; 288 p.

TNB Book Review: Teddy Wayne’s Apartment Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Teddy Wayne’s Apartment , reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

July 09, 2020

Fiction Reviews

On its surface, Teddy Wayne’s latest might seem like an obvious rebuttal to today’s literary culture. Set a quarter-century ago, Apartment is a book about young, white men narrated, not surprisingly, by a young, white man. A brief, breezy read, chock full of winning twists of prose, Apartment is a semi-satirical take on class, masculinity, and the Academy; Columbia’s MFA program, to be precise, where dubiously constructive workshops teem with “types” recognizable to anyone who’s been within screaming distance of an MFA.

There’s the mid-list novelist/teacher who hasn’t published anything in years but somehow manages to present himself as a sort of Hemingway; the talented, effortlessly handsome “working class” writer; and the Atlantic-published “hack” who may not be a hack at all. Then, there’s our nameless narrator whose psychiatric problems (He’s a writer, isn’t he?) may present superficially in relation to his work but, like any good Teddy Wayne protagonist, run much deeper.

Unlike David Federman, the murderous misanthrope at the dark heart of LonerApartment’s protagonist seems harmless enough at first. Continually back-footed by the world, he’s a lovable quasi-loser who sweats too much, gets tongue-tied easily, and lacks the sort of literary self-confidence Mr. Effortlessly Handsome (aka Billy) seems to have in abundance. Like the reader, in fact, our “hero” has no idea just how bad he is until he’s presented with a crisis in the friendship—a threesome that goes from foursome to nonesome in a matter of seconds, leaving the once chummy roomies at odds.

Over the intervening weeks, Billy’s behavior goes from chilly to Siberian, eventually presenting our narrator with the justification and opportunity for a modest amount of payback. In taking revenge, though, our hero reveals a malevolence at least kindred to Loner’s Federman as his desire for vengeance snowballs into a potentially life-destroying crime of passion.

Simmering at the center of Apartment are issues of class and wealth, yes; but at a deeper level, this novel is about sexuality. The homoerotic subtext of this book is handled sparely and with grace by Wayne, who leaves our unnamed protagonist alone at the age of fifty. His literary dreams forgotten; he looks back on the relationship with Billy with an honesty he has somehow still not managed to turn to his own sexuality. This ending with its strains of sadness, anomie, and the lingering possibility of a world held together by a sort of happy nihilism is possibly the finest part of what is overall a well-crafted novel.

Overall, I can’t call Apartment anything but a success. It deftly captures the highs and lows, the heady dreams and soul-numbing disappointments, of the young writer. No, this isn’t the sort of book you read and say to yourself, “Gosh, I can’t wait to write.” But, in the intervening minutes or hours or weeks, as you pick yourself up off the metaphorical floor, you will appreciate the humor, literary polish, and psychological depth of a book that only seems obvious.

TAGS: apartmentTeddy Wayne

KURT BAUMEISTER reviews books for The Nervous Breakdown. His writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, Entropy, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, The Weeklings, The Good Men Project, and others. His debut novel PAX AMERICANA was published in 2017 by Stalking Horse Press. Find him at http://www.kurtbaumeister.com.

The Brooklyn Rail: Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha

Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose

By Kurt Baumeister

MARK DOTEN

Trump Sky Alpha
Graywolf, 2019

In Trump Sky Alpha, Mark Doten writes: “On 1/28, the first commercial telephone exchange is established in New Haven, Connecticut…On 1/28, a fifteen-inch snowflake falls on Fort Keogh, Montana. On 1/28 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and the Holy Roman Emperor, curses the known and unknown worlds he’s left unconquered, and his dumb ass croaks and becomes a ghost. On 1/28, Canuplin is born. On 1/28, Jon Postel will reset the system,” (emphasis mine).

Humanity has a sort of love affair with lists. Big/Small, Bad/Good, Whack/Lit: we love lists because they compress the vast and unknowable into the concise and knowable, because doing this helps us create the illusion of understanding, which is, itself, understandable.

We’re terrified at the scope of what we don’t know. And we have been ever since the first homo habilis took a look around and grunted, “What the fuck?” Whether through selective attention, lying, stories, or simple compression, we struggle to create the illusion of comprehension because it makes us feel like we’re in control.

As far as lists are concerned, some of my personal favorites have always been Granta’s compilations of Best Young Novelists. The first of these, put out in 1983, showcased their Best Young British Novelists at the time and included Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and Julian Barnes. In 1983. Not bad, right?

Fast forward a few decades and who do we find on Granta’s latest list of Best Young American Novelists but one Mark Doten, whose second novel, Trump Sky Alpha, recently crossed my path. Now, I hadn’t read any of Doten’s fiction before this, but based on his mention in Granta, I went into Trump Sky Alpha with high expectations not only for the novel itself but its satirical dismantling of Trump, a creature whose nefarious political charisma ties right back to our love of lists.

Donald Trump is great at labeling people, at demeaning and reducing them. He dispenses withering nicknames with the sadistic aplomb and nasty nonchalance of a fraternity pledge master gone radioactive supervillain. This reductionism is one big reason why Trump’s minions love him: not only does he shrink their enemies down to subjects of mockery, but the concentrated malice they see in Trump as he does so mirrors the monster they know themselves to be deep inside. This, at least, is how Doten would have it. In Trump, Doten sees not a cause, but a symptom.

“Be that as it may, we’re in Trump’s timeline, and Trump is a symptom of the internet, of American sickness on the internet, he’s an internet creation, this avatar of white regressive blowhard resentment…”

For the ultimate cause of apocalypse in Trump Sky Alpha, we must reckon not with Donald Trump, but with the post-postmodern world created by AI and robotics, by climate change, nuclear proliferation, the surveillance state, and ultimately the Internet itself. For Doten, though, the what of his chillingly realistic fictional apocalypse pales beside the whys and hows.

“So there are big questions. The people who took it down, what did they want? Was it some specific attack that got out of hand, was it China or Russia and it got out of hand, was it just fuck-up-the-system, watch-the-world-burn lulz that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?”

“Watch-the-world-burn lulz” is the sort of line you find yourself smiling at then chuckling at then scanning the room huntedly to make sure no one can see what it is you’re laughing at. On a certain level it encapsulates this novel perfectly. Hidden beneath the vicious satire of Trump sailing the skies in his mighty, gold-plated blimp, monologuing like a reflexively prevaricating Nero as the rest of the world burns and sputters and smokes, are Trump Sky Alpha’s real questions about what happened and why: events which are not completely outlandish to think may now be in the process of happening in our real world.

The answers to Trump Sky Alpha’s questions lead to everything from an Internet terror group called the Aviary that may or may not be based on a novel (all of which is, yes, obviously, planted within yet another novel) to an article on Internet humor after the apocalypse, to the villainous and insane master-hacker Birdcrash, a character that seems almost to take on the Platonic form of Mayhem, and lists of everything that happened on this or that date, lists in which the items that truly matter are buried within a mass of pointless information.

Having finished with Trump Sky Alpha, I come back to my initial expectations, the ones provoked by Granta’s pronouncement that “Mark Doten is one of the Best Young American Novelists” and the implied question, “Is that true?” The answer, mine at least, is “possibly.” But, as Trump Sky Alpha teaches us, simple inclusion on a list is not significant in and of itself. More central to understanding is what underpins the list: the rationale, say, for inclusion.

In Trump Sky Alpha, Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose, all of it wrapped around a novel of ideas that never stops dancing from one question to the next. Satirically pyrotechnic and brilliantly formed, Trump Sky Alpha has a musical quality both on a line-to-line basis and in terms of narrative structure; a quality that, in the end, leaves the reader feeling a little like he’s listening to a sort of swan song for civilization, the world’s last symphony, if you will. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Doten belongs on some best-of list. What I can say, without a doubt, is that Trump Sky Alpha is indeed a great literary novel, one that deserves to stand alongside the best work of writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.