Disorientation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Elaine Hsieh Chou
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Apr. 2022)

I was largely drawn to Disorientation by the cover art and then when I read the synopsis and saw buzzwords like “hilarious”, “satirical”, and “chaotic”, I was easily convinced I needed to read it.

I’m so glad I did because I am entirely blown away by this book! Not only could I not put it down, but I am in awe of how clever and thoughtful and funny the writing is. This is absolutely not a book for everyone and I could see how some people would very easily not like it. But everything about the insane plot and characters works so well for me and I know I will be thinking about it for a while.

Disorientation is told from the point of view of Ingrid Yang, a PhD student in her 8th and final year. Ingrid is working on her dissertation, but feeling thoroughly bored and uninspired by the whole thing. She’s a Taiwanese-American student in the East Asian Studies Department and has spent her entire academic career studying the poems of Xiao-Wen Chou, America’s most lauded Asian-American poet, and a previously tenured professor at her alma-matter prior to his death. However, when Ingrid digs deeper into some comments she finds written on her notes in the Chou Archive, she investigates and makes a truly shocking discovery.

From there the novel plunges into chaos, using humour and satire to highlight the plight of the Asian-American woman, the concept of freedom of speech, and the idea of the melting pot in American culture. Elaine Hsieh Chou masterly crafts the plot and the characters around her exploration of race and culture, presenting a very nuanced look at identity politics. It’s a very smart book, to the extent that I find it hard to articulate what the author is able to accomplish with this kind of writing style. She takes every scene and idea and pushes it just to the brink of being unbelievable, but the extreme just serves to highlight how ludicrous some parts of our culture and society really are.

It’s a political book, but it’s made so much more nuanced by our protagonist being against political correctness and dismissive of activism. She doesn’t realize the extent to which she’s been indoctrinated into white nationalism and initially, her internal monologue might serve to make white readers feel at home or more comfortable in her thoughts. But as Ingrid has her own self awakening, so too should the reader. Several of the goodreads reviews I’ve read mention that readers that aren’t female Asian-Americans probably won’t like this book, but I think that’s part of what makes it so brilliant. Of course Asian-Americans will relate to this more than any other individual because of the representation, but I loved the way Chou presents conflicting viewpoints and takes us on a journey with Ingrid. She didn’t have to present her ideas that way, but I think it makes this book so much more reflective than it would have been otherwise. 

Often protagonists come into the story with their politics mostly fully formed, as a pretty liberal person, it’s easy to come into a liberal story and relate with the character’s politics. But the conflicting politics between Ingrid and Vivian served to present a much more thoughtful exploration. I feel like I got to walk a mile in Ingrid’s shoes and I liked the way this challenged my thinking. It doesn’t present a simple black and white scenario for the reader and I liked going on that journey with Ingrid.

This is really satire at it’s best and I loved the juxtaposition Chou creates by going to such extremes with each of her characters. I’ve read other reviews complaining about how awful Michael is, but my friend, is that not the entire point?! He goes to the complete extreme – it’s completely unbelievable, and yet, somehow a bunch of white people screaming about the defense of freedom and wearing merchandise broadcasting an oversimplified 4-letter acronym could not be more relatable and terrifying. This is the world we live in.

Likewise, other reviews complain that the narrative becomes too unhinged towards the end of the novel, to which I agree, but also, given the rest of the story, I really couldn’t see this book ending any other way. It’s not a very satisfying ending, but sadly, it’s one of the most believable parts of an unbelievable story. Institutions will continue to go on operating in much the same way they always have, which begs the question, what can we ultimately do to change them?

Honestly, this book has so much depth I could expand on so many more elements. The discussion of yellowface; Ingrid’s exploration of fetishes and how power and privilege tie into how we perceive them; the satirization of academia; and everything about Vivian, who is the perfect foil to Ingrid. Every character is so imperfectly, perfect. But I’ll end my review here and just encourage you to go read it instead. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it was a perfect 5 stars for me. My favourite book of 2022 thus far!