cover image Disorientation


Elaine Hsieh Chou. Penguin Press, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-29835-0

Chou debuts with a zany if uneven romp through American academia and cultural assimilation. PhD student Ingrid Yang is desperate to write a dissertation that will impress her committee and earn her a postdoc fellowship that will put off her student loan payments. Her subject, the late canonical Chinese American poet Xiao-Wen Chou, once taught at her school, the mid-range Barnes University in Massachusetts, and Chou’s legacy is a crucial source of Barnes’s prestige. As Ingrid doggedly investigates a mysterious note found in Chou’s archives, she wrestles with estrangement from her ancestral Chinese culture, anxiety over the male gaze—she wonders if her white fiancé merely has a fetish for Asian women—and frets about her own attraction to white men. There’s also her friend Eunice Kim, a hyper-gorgeous Korean girl; Eunice’s younger brother, Alex, Eunice’s tough yet insecure male counterpart; and Michael Bartholomew, the orientalizing professor in Barnes’s primarily white East Asian Studies department. Sometimes the portraits feel a bit too cartoonish—there is a moment, for instance, when Eunice is described as “impeccable, ready to guest star in a music video”—but overall Chou effectively skewers a world that takes itself all too seriously, particularly after Ingrid makes an explosive discovery about Chou that could compromise Barnes. This will charm a wide set of readers, not just those pursuing PhDs. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Mar.)