Elaine Hsieh Chou’s wry facility with character and true-to-life power dynamics is on full display in Disorientation, a scathing, satirical campus novel about academia, orientalism, the Western commodification of Asian cultures, and the lengths to which institutions will go to protect their reputations and their darlings. Disorientation is decidedly critical while often being laugh-out-loud funny, not least because of the way it unspools recognizable dynamics to extreme, even absurd, levels.
When we first meet Ingrid Yang, Disorientation’s burnt-out Taiwanese American PhD-candidate protagonist, at the opening of the novel, she’s just trying to get through her final year at school. We also meet a litany of Ingrid’s terrible ex-boyfriends: the Film Studies Major who ghosts her for weeks with “nary a text message”; the Medical Resident who locks her in his bathroom and screams in her face, “which he somehow managed to do only when his neighbors were out”; and the Investment Banker who gets caught in “a blindfolded sex orgy” and explains that he has commitment issues and can’t be held responsible for his behavior.
Here, eerily recognizable personalities are impressively distilled into single lines of prose. Right away, we’re shown that Ingrid is a bit naïve, vulnerable to abuse, and willing to ignore red flags she has been socialized to tolerate. We’re shown why Ingrid’s controlling fiancé Stephen Greene seems to her like a dream come true. He identifies as a feminist, he faithfully recycles, and he wants to sponsor “a malnourished child in an impoverished, war-torn country (the more impoverished and war-torn, the better).”
Ingrid has a lot to learn, both in terms of her inner compass and her sense of self-worth. She’s engaged to someone who is merely the least bad of her boyfriends. She’s taking the path of least resistance for her dissertation because, in the final year of her PhD program with nothing to show for her time, it’s better than giving up. At the opening of the novel, Ingrid reluctantly agrees to finally actually do her dissertation on “the father of Chinese American poetry,” Xiao-Wen Chou, whom she and other students find stereotypical and boring. Ingrid’s white thesis advisor, Michael Bartholomew, who is head of the East Asian Studies department (because of course he is), has all but begged her to do it—probably in response to recent criticism about his 90 percent white department. When Ingrid isn’t dragging herself to the campus’ Xiao-Wen Chou basement archives, she fantasizes about coming down with a serious illness so she can fail out of the program with dignity.
What sets Ingrid on a path of discovery is a joke about every high school English teacher’s fantasy: While combing through Xiao-Wen Chou’s uninspiring, old-fashioned poems for symbolism, Ingrid looks for purposefully hidden clues and secret messages in the text. There, she deduces the coordinates to the author’s birthplace, some real Da Vinci Code shit. She accidentally leaves these notes in the archives, and when she retrieves them, there’s a correction from an anonymous stranger. Improbably, Ingrid seems to have (nearly) hit the mark—the stranger has written, “No, stupid. It’s Xiaoluoshui,” disproving Ingrid’s guess but confirming that yes, the birthplace was encoded in the poem like a Blue’s Clue. Ingrid wants to know who did this—are they mocking her, or helping her?—and vows to track down the culprit, looking in the library’s logbook and finding an obvious pseudonym. Instead of giving up, Ingrid doubles down; seeking this stranger gives Ingrid a curiosity and drive she hasn’t had for years. But each answer opens a new can of worms that makes her reconsider everything about her life, from her course of study and her friendships and even her fiancé and the university itself. When Ingrid makes a bombshell discovery about the East Asian Studies department, she doesn’t want it to be true—so at first, she pretends she didn’t see what she saw: “Yes, she must be imagining things . . . she remained suspended in a morally ambiguous limbo, a tightrope walker teetering on the middle of a fraying rope. Because she knew if she said something, people would get hurt. And if she didn’t—well, maybe no one would.” This is part of what’s so great about Ingrid as a character: her hesitance and denial in the face of shock and disappointment are real as hell.
One of the things this book does best is make clear the relationship between narcissism and an investment in the myth of white supremacy. Several characters illustrate this correlation, including a pathological liar who feels entitled to literary fame, and Ingrid’s fiancé, whom we’ll return to momentarily. When first implicated in the department controversy, Ingrid’s thesis advisor Michael Bartholomew has a panic attack and burns much of his life’s work on a pyre in the quad. This is quite an about-face from someone whose entire life has been curated in order to reinforce his position as “East Asia expert”—someone who dresses in frog-button shirts, twirls Baoding balls while deep in thought, and offers his students Gaoshan tea in earthenware cups. Weeks later, he has refashioned himself as an America-first crusader for freedom. The only thing that’s consistent about him is his apparent need to manufacture and enforce his own expertise. For years, he has presided over a game in which only he could ever be the winner. He changes the rules when they no longer serve him.
The power of dominant narratives is one of Disorientation’s main themes. Whose version of the truth will “win,” and for what audience? Having wrestled with her conscience, Ingrid creates an anonymous website detailing what she witnessed and tips off the student newspaper, whose coverage jeopardizes the continued existence of the East Asian Studies department. It’s important that this department, headed by Michael Bartholomew, is the only one out of the whole university that receives increasing funding year after year. Maybe if this weren’t true, the university wouldn’t be so invested in protecting Michael even with evidence of wrongdoing on his part—evidence later proven irrefutable by Michael’s own correspondence. Together, Michael and the university sow doubts about the truth of the controversy, and then go to great lengths to discredit Ingrid. This is classic DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender), straight out of the narcissist’s playbook. The school is not invested in truth or justice; it’s invested in maintaining its story of itself, and its prestige. Ingrid still needs to defend her dissertation, though. She is put in the demeaning position of still wanting and needing the approval of the university so that the past eight years of her life will not have been a complete waste. But what is the value of approval from a disgraced institution?
These dynamics are mirrored in Ingrid’s most intimate relationship, with her white fiancé Stephen. His insistence on being read in a particular way—as altruistic, one of the “good ones,” but also always correct—is itself evidence that he is controlling. (On the losing side of an argument, Stephen tells Ingrid she hasn’t been herself: “To be perfectly honest, dear, it’s quite worrying. I was recently reading an article about mental breakdowns—”) The narration does an excellent job of showing this even while Ingrid makes excuses for him, a guy able to prattle on about authentic vs. fake wasabi but unable to remember that Ingrid is Taiwanese and not Chinese. His performance of nonthreatening-self-sacrificing-niceboy cracks whenever Ingrid asks him sincere questions about his career in Japanese translation (importantly, a language he cannot speak) and his dating history. In response to a perceived slight, “a sneer disfigured Stephen’s face, so briefly she wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it.” In explaining himself, the man doth protest too much (he thinks Ingrid “should be very careful making such a serious accusation. After all, our country’s legal system is predicated on being innocent until proven—”) and holds Ingrid responsible for making him act defensively (which is, to a lesser degree, exactly what Michael Bartholomew is doing). When the “super-kawaii” Japanese author Stephen has been translating turns out to be more complicated than the stereotype she is selling in her memoir, Stephen swears Ingrid to secrecy, in fear for his reputation. Everything comes back to Stephen: how he will be perceived, how Ingrid must help to uphold his personal mythos. In various ways, he seems to ask her, “Why weren’t you thinking about me the whole time you were thinking about yourself?” Ingrid defaults to Stephen’s oft-repeated definition of himself as a harmless feminist with the best of intentions, and the power of this narrative eclipses Ingrid’s actual lived experience. She doubts herself because of who he says he is, which is different from how he behaves. Over time, though, she begins to feel collected by him for her Asianness, woman as commodity—another revelation she tries for a while to unsee.
Disorientation avoids the boring trope of writing any personalities as paragons of virtue or purely evil forces. Every character is complicated. Ingrid’s sometimes-nemesis, Vivian Vo, is fearless in her radical, progressive critiques and protests, but she’s not above lying to steal the spotlight or to cover an embarrassing past. Ingrid’s BFF Eunice Kim is really into glam looks and dramatic makeup so people often don’t believe she’s a PhD candidate. But she’s comfortable with the fact that her personal narrative and motivations aren’t legible to other people. Stephen is creepy, but often genuinely thoughtful. Even Michael Bartholomew isn’t all bad; he once helped Ingrid secure an apartment when she was out of options, and Ingrid’s perceptions of Michael’s motivations give us some sense of what he has at stake in safeguarding his lies. Ingrid herself is such an enjoyable protagonist because of all the things she gets “wrong”—her guilelessness and uncertainty, the way she stumbles her way toward imperfect resolutions after testing out conflicting philosophies. She is not faultless, because she lives in (a constructed approximation of) the real world, not a Goofus and Gallant comic.
Maybe because of her faults, Ingrid is able to approach fraught situations with humility and curiosity. At several points in the novel, she is willing to hold a harsh light to herself and must decide whether and how to relinquish control over how she is perceived. Ingrid’s negotiations and self-analysis are things most of the characters in Disorientation aren’t capable of or willing to do—which is part of what makes them so dangerous. Ingrid probably wouldn’t identify with this label, but she is a true heroine.
Elaine Hsieh Chou has written a brilliant absurdist satire in which the characters’ lives exist in only the most minorly warped of funhouse mirrors, and the characters themselves are real, messy people whose growth doesn’t mean unshakable certainty or tidy epiphanies. The satire is maybe a tad too indulgent at times (as with Xiao-Wen Chou’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Peng” and its line “I have measured out my life in porcelain spoons,” and the blonde Stepford-wife-ification of Michael Bartholomew’s Chinese wife), but Ingrid’s chaotic, guilt-laden awakening is refreshing and thrilling to read. The sometimes-campy high stakes in this book are a mischievous, wild ride—excoriating, heart-wrenching, hilarious, and daring.