Discovery and Hijinks in "Disorientation"

The Fiction Addiction

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Disprientation(cover art from the publisher)

In Disorientation, by Elaine Hsieh Chou, PhD candidate Ingrid Yang is halfheartedly at work on her dissertation when she stumbles across a weird note in the Xiao-Wen Chou archives. After this discovery, Ingrid pretty much stumbles into everything in this plot, meandering confusedly across campus and into self-discovery.

There's a lot to enjoy and to recognize in this novel, especially for comp lit readers and teachers. The description of Chinese-American poet Xiao-Wen Chou, with his accessible, marketable quotes on tea boxes, felt almost too realistic, and so did Ingrid's struggle to turn in some pages that would have some new scholarship to contribute, please her advisor, and not be so boring she'd fall asleep while writing it.  Meanwhile, the descriptions of loud white men (with quiet Asian wives) in the East Asian Studies department felt way too familiar. I really enjoyed the scenes satirizing the school, and I particularly enjoyed how the author skewers literally everyone on campus, with snark and cutting insight, while Ingrid herself remains fairly clueless.

But Disorientation is uneven in parts, and the book drags in a few places where an interesting moment becomes an interminable scene. Sometimes this novel is a goofy story of Ingrid's madcap adventures trying to get out of working on her dissertation, but at other times, it's a harsh and insightful look at academic life,  and at other times, it's a satire of stolen stories and faked experiences. I enjoyed each side, but by including so much at once, the novel as a whole feels disjointed.

Basically, I felt like I was reading two novels (maybe three?) at once.  There's a silly, over-the-top comedy of Ingrid's goofy adventures. Ingrid, while avoiding her advisor, claims basically every illness she can think up. It's a buddy comedy where Ingrid and her best friend, Eunice, run insane investigations wearing goofy costumes and giving goofy spy signals. Our clueless heroine Ingrid is constantly right on the scene for key information to fall into her lap. It's fun, more like a pantomime than a novel.

But in the midst of the silliness, there are some dead-on insights and some fun snark. There's a clever commentary about who owns an experience, whether that's claiming to have written Chinese poetry, claiming to have written a website denouncing a fake author, claiming to speak a foreign language, claiming a relationship, claiming an identity, or just claiming the experiences of being alive. The book questions performed identity, too, like when a western character ostentatiously collects Chinese pottery to display his cultural expertise (and then trashes it when that no longer suits his needs). And then there's a look at who gets a second act screaming about free speech or who gets a contract for a book about being a Japanese translator who can't speak Japanese. 

There's also snarky commentary about academic life, department rivalries, and publishing pressure. Throughout the story, academic characters seem to ask: sure, insightful writing is great, but can you turn it into money, tenure, healthcare? And if you can, does that mean a bit of networking and sucking up to the right people, or  repackaging and rebranding, or... what? Anyone who's taught at a university, or tried to turn scholarship into money will recognize and enjoy this part.

Disorientation is an engaging but sometimes uneven book, with a lot to like in both the screwball comedy scenes and the clever satire scenes, but a disjointed feeling from both aspects blended in one novel.

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