Thursday, January 25, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Yellowface is another literary blockbuster success written by R.F. Kuang, the author of the Hugo award-winning speculative fiction masterpiece Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (See my review) and The Poppy War trilogy. Yellowface won the Goodreads Choice award for Best Fiction in 2023, demonstrating Kuang’s widening appeal and increasing acclaim to the general public even before she has completed graduate school(!)

Yellowface is a story about writing, writers, and the never ending struggle between art and commerce. Kuang is especially skilled at selecting topics for her books that are likely to resonate with a significant segment of the book-reading (and book-buying) public. Babel is focused on the importance and nuance of words; etymological knowledge becomes a source of technological power through the application of fantastical magic. Unsurprisingly, the premise that the meaning and backgrounds of words themselves could be the central aspect of a plot was irresistible to many reader and literary critics alike.

In Yellowface, Kuang goes even further by centering the story around literary ambition itself, another thing that both readers and critics have in common. Many readers, and most (if not all?) critics have harbored secret thoughts of literary success. Another key ingredient of Yellowface is its self-conception as an expose, an insider’s view of the book industry itself. This is, of course, another subject that both readers and critics would find irresistible to consume. Yellowface is about two friends/colleagues/rivals who have a lot of similarities, but whose level of success and career trajectories (when we meet them at the beginning of the book) are very dissimilar. Juniper (June) Song is the primary protagonist  whose first-person perspective we get throughout the novel while Athena Liu is her frenemy (friend/enemy) who seems to effortlessly outshine June in every way that matters. Athena and June are both young authors who have written and published their first books, to wildly different responses from the public. Athena and June attended the same prestigious college, and ran in similar circles since they had similar interests and ambitions (literary success). However, Athena published her first novel while still in college, obtaining a prestigious literary agent and book deal. June also finished her first book in college and got an agent (and far less lucrative) book deal. 

Yellowface’s most important moment happens quite early in the book. While Athena and June are socializing (in Athena’s fabulous apartment in Washington, DC), celebrating Athena’s completion of her latest novel when Athena chokes and dies in a freak accident. (The incident is told from June’s perspective and makes it somewhat ambiguous whether June could have been more active in trying to save her “friend.” What happens next is not in doubt, however. June takes the only existing copy of Athena’s completed manuscript home with her. After a few days she takes it out and starts to edit it and check and augment the historical details included in the book. Athena’s novel was a surprising departure from her previous work; it’s a historical novel, about a little-known incident from World War I involving Chinese laborers. There’s also an interracial love story. Eventually, June decides to submit the work to her usually unenthusiastic agent, passing it off as her own. Of course, everyone loves the book, even though they are somewhat surprised that June could (and would) write something like this. June is white, and Athena is Asian-American, so questions of authenticity become raised almost immediately, internally within June’s literary agency and externally from fellow writers who knew both Athena and June, some who are still reeling over the sudden tragic death of Athena, and are extremely suspicious of June’s bona fides to publish a book about this topic.

However, what happens next is something of a slow-moving horror story. As the book becomes more and more successful, scrutiny about the provenance of the work is also heightened. Kuang skillfully shows how social media and word-of-mouth (i.e. gossip) operate within literary circles, especially in her depictions of the sometimes cozy and somewhat incestuous relationship between authors, critics, publishers, promoters and bookstores.

The ending of Yellowface is somewhat anticlimactic. Unsurprisingly, as the tension of the plot ratchets up higher and higher eventually something breaks, but in a way that is not as compelling as the setup of the story. Overall my impression of the book are generally positive but I definitely would not have voted for it as the best fiction book of 2023. Regardless, it’s clear that Kuang is an author on the rise, and I look forward to reading her future work.

Title: Yellowface.
Author: R.F. Kuang.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 336 pages.
Publisher: William Morrow.
Date Published: May 25, 2023.
Date Read: November 9, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/B (3.16/4.0).


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