The Double Life of Benson Yu: A Novel

Image of The Double Life of Benson Yu: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 18, 2023
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

“Folding in on itself with its fantastical loop-de-loop narrative only to start anew, The Double Life of Benson Yu is a clever confection that isn’t shy about revealing the humanity behind its narrative trickery.”

Put plainly, Benson Yu is a mess. Once the author of a successful series of graphic novels about an iguana samurai, he’s now trapped in middle-age malaise and irrelevance, struggling to write a serious novel, unable to connect with a supportive wife and daughter, traumatized by memories of his childhood in Chinatown in the 1980s, particularly his sexual abuse at the hands of a martial arts trainer. What’s a writer to do but write about what one knows? As Benson tells the tale of “Benny,” the precocious, shy kid he used to be, he takes the opportunity to carry out a few rewrites—mainly, giving the personality of his abuser “C.” a makeover, gifting him the name of Constantine as well as a gentler demeanor and a sympathetic backstory of mental illness.

Alternating between Benson’s present life and his reimagined past, Chong’s punchy prose paints a gritty yet affectionate portrait of Chinatown decades past, where bullies and violence lurk around the corner, but elders like Benny’s ailing grandmother provide fleeting moments of warmth. The Double Life of Benson Yu indulges in pop culture tropes—Benson’s obsession with old samurai movies seeps into his characters and storytelling—even as he wryly deconstructs fiction and fact, drawing parallels between Benny’s troubled childhood and the hero of his comic-book fantasies.

Yet all the narrative flash can’t hide the harrowing realities at the heart of Benson’s tale: try as he might to change things up, he knows that what has already happened—the death of Benny’s grandmother, his fateful meeting with his new neighbor Constantine, their burgeoning “Lone Wolf and Cub”-style friendship, the inexorable countdown to the moment Benny loses his innocence forever—will always happen. “All words, no pictures, child abuse,” he warns his publisher. “It’s gonna be a bummer.”

Or will it? The nature of Benson’s “rewrite” takes a turn into the surreal that won’t be fully revealed here; suffice to say that the book’s title is a sly double entendre, and Benny and Benson, both adolescent and grown-up, get the impossible opportunity to spend time in each other’s company, as past and present collide in sometimes humorous, sometimes shocking ways.

Chong has fun with the hops and skips across time, and his deadpan tone accommodates both the poignant (one of Benny’s school buddies jumps forward to the present day to find happiness as a transgender, something that would have been unthinkable 30 years before) and the provocative (an excruciatingly tense confrontation between Benson, Benny and the real-life “C”). But while the situations Benson and Benny find themselves in may be outlandish, the emotional wreckage they contend with is as grounded as it gets, as both boy and man apprehend what they have and might become.

The Double Life of Benson Yu maintains a peppy pace throughout, preferring to glide from incident to incident rather than dig into its protagonists’ traumas. It’s an appropriate approach given its protagonist’s repressed anguish (and his comic book background), but it does rob the story of a bit of power down the stretch, as we chug toward a paroxysm of violence that deserves a bit more build-up and catharsis.

Nevertheless, Chong’s grip on his characters and the story holds steady, and if the resolution to Benson and Benny’s troubles seems like something out of a sci-fi graphic novel, the story’s denouement suggests that growing up and moving on isn’t just about comic-book heroics. Folding in on itself with its fantastical loop-de-loop narrative only to start anew, The Double Life of Benson Yu is a clever confection that isn’t shy about revealing the emotional vulnerability behind its narrative trickery.