“Yellowface” by R.F. Kuang | Credit: Courtesy

I can’t remember reading a work of fiction where bits of prose took me out of the story as often as happened while reading Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. Not so much in the first half of the book, parts of which I think are not only well-crafted but cleverly address contemporary social issues like ethnic and racial identity and representation, as well as provide a behind-the-veil peek into the workings of the publishing industry, where authors are brands and books must be packaged and marketed and slotted in the perfect niche to have any hope of penetrating the fickle consumer market. The “best” books are rarely bestsellers, but a mediocre book with an irresistible hook, by someone with a notable personal story, can be turned into a bestseller with enough marketing and advertising and social media clout. Publishers and editors decide if a book has the elusive “It” factor worthy of investment based on a host of factors beyond literary merit. 

The first part of Yellowface lays out how June Hayward, a struggling and virtually unknown writer with a single book to her credit, becomes Juniper Song, the acclaimed author of The Last Front, a novel about Chinese laborers on the western front in the First World War. The history is almost unknown outside the Chinese diaspora. So, how does June pull it off, to what extremes is she willing to go to achieve what she imagines is the ideal life for a young, single, Ivy League graduate obsessed with fame, money, and literary immortality? Will she appropriate the work of the deceased Athena Liu, someone she considers a friend, add her talent to the core idea, background research and narrative framework, and pass off the end product as her own creation? Even if she’s not Chinese like Athena? 

She will. Spurred by lust for the perfect life she thought Athena Liu enjoyed, she presents The Last Front under the name Juniper Song, which misdirects some people into thinking she’s Asian. Juniper Song carries more mystery than June Hayward, conjuring an exotic image, though to be fair, June’s middle name is Song, and it’s not a crime to publish under a pseudonym. Besides, June did the work, she put the flesh on the bones, right? “The Last Front, written as Juniper Song, symbolizes a step forward in my creative journey.” 

There you have it. Writers are vultures, June tells us. 

What captivates public attention more than a spectacular rise followed by a spectacular fall? Juniper Song’s experience is reminiscent of Icarus. She will feel adored, important, worthy, and wanted, she’ll have followers waiting anxiously for her next social media post; she’ll have a wine fridge and new furniture from IKEA, and she’ll pay off her student loans and decamp to a better apartment. But as she basks in the bright lights on the main literary stage, she’ll be all alone. As she is alone when questions about the authenticity of her book are raised, when her story unravels and her admirers turn on her with the same intensity with which they celebrated her. 

Hell hath no fury like a sanctimonious social media audience. 

Halfway through the novel I’m not entirely on June’s side. A writer takes a risk when she hangs a story on an unlikeable protagonist. It can work, but it’s tricky. I get the satire at work and appreciate Kuang’s cleverness, but I feel like I’m driving cross-country in one of those tiny Smart cars with someone I want to ditch at a truck stop. June’s justifications and machinations, expressed in the register of a privileged white woman, don’t make me fancy her, though I’m willing to read on and see how this ends. Succession, the dark HBO hit, came to mind, which I watched to the final episode despite being annoyed and irritated by all the characters. At least those characters were fun. June’s snarky and conniving, but she’s not fun. She’s whiny and mean-spirited and naive for someone with an elite education. 

What June needs is human contact, hugs, honest conversation about stuff that matters, laughter and silliness, the mystery of blood relations. But who can June turn to? Of her father we know only that he died and that her first novel was about her grief, as her father was the only one who understood and supported her artistic dreams. Her mother is a practical woman who, after her husband dies, works a miraculous “office job” that enables her to save enough money to put two daughters through college — Yale in June’s case — with minimal student debt accrued, and contribute to a retirement fund on which she now lives in comfort in her own home. Such lucrative office jobs should be available to all single mothers! June’s mother never had to skip a parent-teacher meeting to attend a business mixer or professional conference, which inclines me to think she’s not a high-powered attorney, CPA, architect, designer, banker, or salesperson. I’m sure Kuang didn’t intend for my curiosity to be piqued more by the mother’s job than about June’s reputation and career being ripped to shreds, but it is.   

Poor June, though. No mother who understands her, into whose arms she can fall and be reassured that the trolls on the internet won’t win. Her relationship with her sister is only so-so. No love interest. No friends. No cat. No dog. Only her phone and her laptop and her IKEA furniture. Her life is one dimensional, the pursuit of literary notoriety and fame, of narrative gold as she calls it. No fate can be worse than being banished from the publishing world.  

Empty, insecure, and envious, June’s also angry about reverse racism and sees herself as a victim for bearing the burden of privilege. “That the world should put them on a pedestal and shower them with opportunities. That they can bully, harass, and humiliate people like me, just because I’m white, just because that counts as punching up, because in this day and age, women like me are the last acceptable target. Racism is bad, but you can still send death threats to Karens.”

Perhaps I should be more sympathetic since there was a sexual trauma in college, possibly a rape though June isn’t positive, and her dad’s passing obviously left a void, but try as I might I can only muster a desire to encourage June to grow up and think about someone other than herself. After all, anonymity isn’t the end of the world. 

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.


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