Yellowface: A Novel
“This is strong satire, and many parts are, if not laugh-out loud funny, at least genuinely chuckle-funny.”
Stories—who owns them and who has the right to tell which story—form the core of R. F. Kuang’s hyper-contemporary, hyper-meta novel Yellowface. June Heyward has been sort-of friends with Athena Liu since freshman year at Yale, mainly because they were in all the same undergrad writing classes, but their careers have taken drastically different trajectories. June’s debut novel tanked, selling only a few thousand copies.
Meanwhile, Athena’s debut “launched amidst a fanfare of critical acclaim in venues like the New Yorker and the New York Times, and it occupied top spots on every bestseller list for weeks. The awards circuit the following year was a foregone conclusion. Athena’s debut—Voice and Echo, about a Chinese American girl who can summon the ghosts of all the deceased women in her family—was one of those rare novels that perfectly straddled the line between speculative and commercial fiction, so she accrued nominations for the Booker, Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, two of which she won.”
As adults, they both end up in Washington, DC, and, despite her jealousy, June always accepts Athena’s invitations to hang out. When Athena dies suddenly in a freak accident, June is the only witness. She makes a snap decision to take the only existing draft of Athena’s recently completed novel, The Last Front, which no one else has seen. This is the first of a number of, shall we say, questionable decisions. After editing and revising the manuscript, she sends it to her agent as her own. Just as she revised Athena’s work, the publisher revises June with an ethnically ambiguous author photo and encouraging her to publish the new work under her full name and middle name—Juniper Song. Does it sound vaguely Asian? Yes. Does it sell books? Also yes.
June finds herself living the dream—invitations to speak at writers conferences, award nominations, several months on the New York Times bestseller list, and big, fat royalty checks. All this helps to assuage any guilt she may feel over plagiarizing Athena’s work. There’s plenty of backlash from book Twitter and bloggers who question her authenticity and authorship, which June deals with varying degrees of success.
Kuang gleefully (and accurately) captures the angst, professional jealousy, and gossip that is part and parcel of the contemporary novelist’s life. She’s particularly adept at capturing the voices and vitriol of the internet. Take for instance June’s reading of her first one-star reviews on Goodreads for The Last Front: “Uninspired colonizer trash, one reads. Another iteration of the white woman exploitation sob story formula: copy, paste, change the names, and voila, bestseller,” reads another. And a third, which seems way too personal to be objective: “What a stuck-up obnoxious bitch. Brags too much about being a Yalie. I got this during a Kindle sale, and you can bet I made sure to get one of the two hundred and ninety-nine cents I spent back.”
Writers are always advised to “show, not tell” in their fiction. Kuang pretty much ignores this dictum. The vast majority of the book takes place online, in the virtual court of public opinion. Yet June’s equal parts smart, stupid, and tone-deaf voice makes it work. This is strong satire, and many parts are, if not laugh-out loud funny, at least genuinely chuckle-funny.
Lingering over all this is the ghost of Athena and her work, which June seems unable to fully escape, and, by extension, the presence of Kuang herself. Athena’s bio and physical description reads a lot like Kuang’s, a device that adds another layer to a novel that’s already swimming deep in the meta sea. At times it feels like too much. We are, after all, reading a novel written by an Asian American woman from the point of view of a white woman who publishes a book written from the point of view of an Asian American woman. It’s meta, it’s satire, it’s literary fiction, it veers into horror (or at least gothic creepiness). As a novel, it’s eminently readable but doesn’t quite stick the landing. The delightful journey makes up for the fact that the destination isn’t wholly satisfying.