Ingrid Yang feels lost. Exhausted by four years of working on her dissertation, the Taiwanese-American protagonist of Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel “Disorientation” never wants to read another line of poetry again.
Yet when she discovers a disturbing secret about her dissertation subject, the legendary Chinese-American poet Xiao-Wen Chou, Ingrid sees her opportunity to escape mind-numbing academia. This turning point transforms the Ph.D. student’s dull, scholarly routine into a rollercoaster equal parts farcical and self-advocative.
“Disorientation” simultaneously deconstructs and debilitates academic institutions with wit and novelty. Genres coalesce as the plot simmers and rises, seamlessly weaving together political fiction, satire and mystery. Although Chou’s somewhat inconsistent pacing and few pedestrian characters can frustrate readers at times, the intrigue of the novel’s rather brilliant core quandary overpowers minor shortfalls.
The novel’s roots, in reality, make Chou’s satire even more impactful and exhilarating. In 2015, a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson submitted his poem to “Best American Poetry” anthology under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou, believing that such a moniker would improve his chances of getting published. Inspired by this disturbing appropriation, “Disorientation” prospers as Chou’s smart and scathing retort to Hudson and those who view identities as discardable.
Chou’s voice glimmers through pages of thickening satire, like milky light seeping between dense forest undergrowth. She outlines what initially appears to be a straightforward plotline, a simple conflict, a superficial set of characters — all before diving into genre-jumping absurdity. The plunge into nonsensicality creates an effect similar to disassociation, interlacing her readers’ experience with Ingrid’s scrambled feelings about her identity, worth and life’s work.
Navigating such a disorienting plot demands scrutiny and coherence, and Chou proves herself to be a talented juggler. Though key plot developments unfold over many chapters, the novel’s sudden twists compose its strongest moments. Chou unearths systemic issues with heart — as she constructs her book’s base, she shakes the foundations of longstanding academic institutions. She pins down and unravels the racism and elitism embedded in higher establishments, all while steadily focusing on Ingrid’s identity and independence.
Chou chews up white privilege and spits it out, highlighting hypocrisy in the status quo without batting an eye. She knows precisely where her story needs to move to keep readers invested and to maintain her mystery’s allure; just as the plotline threatens to fall into predictability, an unforeseeable dilemma strikes.
Stylistically the novel may be an easy read, but emotionally it can be a tumultuous, troubling narrative. Integrating everything from exasperating microaggressions to full-fledged racist acts, Chou often shocks with her novel’s swift shifts from humor to hatred. The whiplash from these abrupt switches can be disturbing, but these blunt, impactful stupors catalyze revelations for readers.
While Chou stuffs her novel with many salient issues, her dedication to fitting in so many elements occasionally overwhelms the central plotline. From her fear of the F word (“fetishist”) to her shame at clinging to Eurocentric beauty standards, periodic subplots aiming to characterize Ingrid come at expense of the novel’s fluidity and cohesion. Chou’s characterization is often purposefully static, but sometimes the one-dimensional characters require a little more uplift.
In spite of minorly distracting asides and questionable characterization, the lucidity of Chou’s writing style keeps the novel digestible. Her clearness is parallel to plainness on occasion, but she hides insightful pockets of acidity within her unadorned exposition. In particular, Chou delights with her development of Ingrid’s homespun fiance Stephen Greene and irksome academic advisor Michael Bartholomew.
“Disorientation” doesn’t simply silhouette academic spaces — it points out the shadows on the wall. Echoing pains of the past while navigating modern turbulence, Chou merges fiction and reality into contemporary political scorn.
A stirring, satiric spin on systemic oppression and storytelling, “Disorientation” joyously divulges what it means to rebuild through the rediscovery of an identity battered by enmity. Her protagonist might be burnt out, but Chou’s passion flares brightly in her outrageous yet relatable debut.