“Envy,” the psychologist Peter van Sommers writes, “concerns what you would like to have but don’t possess,” whereas jealousy “concerns what you have and do not wish to lose.” Elaine Hsieh Chou’s hilarious and harrowing debut novel, Disorientation, is set in a place saturated with both emotions, where envy and jealousy shift and interact in ways that are hard to parse: the contemporary American university.
When we first meet her, in a scene of archival intrigue that nods to the opening of A.S. Byatt’s classic academic satire-romance Possession, Ingrid Yang is definitely “not doing well.” She is at the start of the eighth and final year of her Ph.D. in East Asian studies at Barnes University, a fictional but familiar institution of the small-town New England type, “with redbrick buildings scattered between virile green lawns, clusters of neatly groomed trees and a quad designed to discourage protests.” Patchy with eczema and addicted to antacids, Ingrid spends her days unproductively leafing through the papers of the famed Asian American poet Xiao-Wen Chou, “the so-called Chinese Robert Frost,” a former Barnes professor whose work is sliding out of vogue in the wake of his recent death.*
Ingrid is a wreck chugging toward her dissertation defense, running on bubble tea and a slurry of nagging troubles—certainly envy (of her tenured professors and a particular grad student peer), as well as anxiety about the unlikelihood of a stable future in academia, a late-twenties am-I-settling crisis, and, more than anything, despair and uncertainty about the topic of her research. She initially wanted to study the poetry of Anglo-American modernists like Eliot and Stein, but through a series of pushy mentors and dodgy circumstances she was shuffled from English and comp lit into an East Asian studies department criticized for being “89 percent white, 9 percent Asian and 1 percent other.” This is where we find her, unwillingly steeped in the tepid chinoiserie of Xiao-Wen Chou, “so much so, she felt his allusions and alliterations leaking from her every orifice and puddling beneath her.”
On the outside, Ingrid is an epitome of the so-called model minority; she has always followed, with placid apathy, the rules set out by her parents, her white childhood friends, her undergraduate mentor, and now her suspiciously enthusiastic dissertation adviser, Michael, a ponytailed white man who favors shirts with frog closures and is accompanied by the gentle chime of swirling Baoding balls. Inside, though, Ingrid is in a state of torpid discontent, unhappy with her circumstances but unsure of how to change them. When a provocative clue in Chou’s files makes her question the official account of the poet’s past, she comes back to life, certain that the scholarly mystery she’s discovered is “her hot ticket out of academic purgatory, her long-awaited savior come to free her from reading about filial piety and bound feet ever again…payback for years of wheeling and dealing in Chinese-y shit.”
Thus begins the novel’s rollicking literary detective story, which revolves around a decades-old case of racial mimicry and administrative complicity. Ingrid, roused first by the prospect of scholarly discovery, then by the idea of blowing up her staid life, discovers a surprising natural penchant for sleuthing as she tries to get to the truth about Xiao-Wen Chou’s identity. Through increasingly daring antics, Ingrid discovers a conspiracy among chaired professors and university administrators, driven by their single-minded desire to retain their positions in the university’s inequitable hierarchy. The lengths to which these villains will go in the pursuit of this goal—like Michael’s transformation from hippie-dippie Orientalist bohemian to folksy red-blooded nativist—are deliciously ridiculous, in the tradition of absurd campus-related novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.
Disorientation is a page-turner studded with razor-sharp one-liners. (I challenge you to find a description as coolly cutting as “around campus, Michael was considered handsome.”) Its twists and turns propel the plot while skewering topics from anti–affirmative action sentiment among Asian Americans to the jargon-heavy stylings of academic prose to the diabolically chameleonic quality of the American right. Along the way, Ingrid’s archival mystery leads her out of her dissertation funk and into a tangle of betrayal and deception that forces her to reevaluate her own self-deceiving beliefs about what it means to be an Asian scholar and an Asian woman in America.
There are the three Asian American academic women at the center of this book: Ingrid, who is Taiwanese American; her Korean American best friend, Eunice; and their shared nemesis, Vietnamese American Vivian Vo. Resentment shapes their relationships from the start. Eunice, a K-beauty- and K-drama-obsessed southern Californian who “attended schools that were 90 percent Asian” and “never wanted for freshly rolled gimbap or all-you-can-eat Sichuan hotpot,” comes from an entirely different world than Ingrid, who grew up in a nearby majority-white small town and has spent nearly half her life in Wittlebury, notable as the home to Barnes—at one point the “only segregated university in all of Massachusetts”—and the world-famous Waffle-Dog factory. Ingrid grew up longing to pass as white, or at least white-adjacent, engaged in “a constant containment of any unchecked or residual chinkiness—this inescapable disease that leaked from her body, face, skin.” The effort seems to have resulted in her desire, as an adult, to blend in with her surroundings; a department reception early in the novel finds both Ingrid and her fiancé clad demurely in gray wool, matching not only each other but also the conference room.
Eunice, on the other hand, cultivates a particular Asian aesthetic sometimes accused by critics in and out of the culture as imitating whiteness, with colored hair, colored contacts, and double-eyelid surgery. To the chagrin of her brother, who dabbles in Asian men’s-rights forums, Eunice dates only bro-ey white men; when asked, she refuses to read into her aesthetic and sexual choices. Eunice’s elaborate maquillage and revealing outfits draw attention to her body and, in Ingrid’s opinion, away from her prodigious intellect. Upon first meeting Eunice, whose dissertation exploring Hegelian ethics in K-dramas earned her a fellowship, Ingrid immediately writes her off because of her looks, wondering how she could possibly have gained admission to the program.
However, “despite the stark differences in their upbringings, and their sense of fashion, they shared a near identical acceptance of the state of the world and their positions within it.” It’s this placid “acceptance” that brings Ingrid and Eunice together, a bond solidified in their envious hatred of Vivian, “the darling of Postcolonial Studies.” (The one really jarring inaccuracy in this book is the idea that a place like Barnes would ever fund a robust postcolonial studies department.) Black-garbed, cigarette-smoking, outspoken Vivian is at the forefront of campus activism, heading the grad student POC Caucus and publishing an intimidating number of peer-reviewed articles with titles like “Yellowdrama! Or Banal Orientalism and the Enduring Popularity of Miss Saigon.”
Ingrid and Eunice—housed in a genteelly apolitical department populated by white men, “glasses clad and averse to sports and sunshine, with girlfriends and fiancées living in East Asia”—are certain about their essential difference from Vivian: “They both understood there were two varieties of Asians: Asians like Vivian and Asians like themselves. And that the two varieties eyed each other warily: the former with pity and the latter with resentment for being pitied.” Vivian demands and receives the praise and recognition that Ingrid and Eunice long for but cannot bring themselves to seek out.
This initially seems like an impasse on the road to any kind of understanding or even basic cooperation between the “two varieties of Asians.” Yet as the novel progresses, it’s envy—the concern with “what you would like to have but don’t possess,” a concern strong enough to motivate detailed, even obsessive examination of its object—that ultimately drives Ingrid into a direct confrontation with her own position in the university and in the world. As the theorist Sianne Ngai has observed, despite the fact that envy is “moralized and uglified to such an extent that it becomes shameful to the subject who experiences it,” it has, at its core, a “potential critical agency—as an ability to recognize, and antagonistically respond to, potentially real and institutionalized forms of inequality.”
Envy plays out in the different strains of competition among Ingrid, Eunice, Vivian, and the other Asian women who appear in the novel. The first of these is academic. Chou frames graduate study as a blood sport, in which “the very mention of the word ‘tenure’ transformed otherwise respectable students into cannibalistic fiends, ready to slaughter each other over the remaining scraps.” Ingrid and Eunice are envious of Vivian’s prodigious list of publications, which they have not read but dismiss out of hand. Vivian, while evidently unthreatened by her two haters, faces an internalized conflict familiar to nonwhite, non-male scholars everywhere: the unwinnable struggle to achieve the same recognition and support that certain less qualified colleagues take for granted—a conflict that drives her to an eventual nervous breakdown. The unspoken sense is that there is room for only one alpha Asian woman at Barnes; though Ingrid is privately “fixated on proving she was just as intelligent, just as relevant” as Vivian, she persistently gives in to the perceived pecking order, in which only Vivian commands a degree of public acknowledgment, by dint of her constant hustle and self-advocacy.
The second, more insidious kind of competition is sexual. As the novel progresses, Ingrid comes to the belated realization (painfully clear from the start to any reader experienced in dating while Asian) that her eerily mild-mannered fiancé, Stephen, has a major case of fetishism, which she can only queasily call “the F word.” Ingrid begins to see sexual threats everywhere: in Eunice; in Azumi Kasuya, the hot young Japanese author whose novel Stephen is translating; in “every single [Asian woman] alive on the planet, between the ages of eighteen and, say, sixty-two.” A fear takes root in Ingrid that draws together her professional and personal anxieties around Asianness and femininity as she thinks, “Was the only way to avoid replacement by another Asian woman to somehow become…the ultimate Asian woman?”
It does strain the imagination a bit to think that Ingrid, at thirty, is only just becoming aware of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women in Western cultures as she—spurred by a Get Out–like scene of comedy horror—rethinks her past experiences with white men and wonders for the first time, “How was it possible to be so desired and so hated, the two intertwined like heads of the same beast?” The novel’s piling up of dichotomies—jealousy and envy, desire and hatred, the seemingly passive type of Asian woman and the seemingly aggressive one—suggests a plausible reason for Ingrid’s failure to recognize her own position. Her naiveté is in fact the flip side of a careful, lifelong project of willful blindness. She had let herself
be patted on the head for being the right kind of minority, then becoming the minority they expected of her. She had been complacent. She had been complicit. Perhaps she still was. Perhaps, and this was harder to admit, no matter how much she changed, she always would be in some ways—simply by virtue of what she lived through and what would forever remain a secondhand story to her.
For a moment, Ingrid slides into jealousy, clinging briefly to the illusion of safety offered by her relationship, icky as it is. The temptation to give in to the petty relationship drama of sexual jealousy, and to focus on the small-scale problem of what she has and might lose, is eminently resolvable compared with the unknowability of what she might let herself want instead.
As the book nears its dramatic end, the arc of her development leads her to discover that she does not want to hold on to what she already has: neither her position in a condescending and paternalistic department nor her engagement to a condescending and paternalistic man, shaped as they both are by hackneyed Orientalist fantasies. It is by watching Eunice and Vivian, and even Azumi (who has more up her ruffled sleeve than expected), and contemplating what each of them possesses that she does not, that Ingrid begins to fill in the blanks of her own wants and needs.
Disorientation ultimately suggests that the only way out is not through—it’s literally just out. By the end of the book, Barnes University and the larger structures that the institution represents (America, academia, American academia) are left worse than we found them, motivated more than ever by the jealous imperative to hold on to what they have. The university is a lost cause, and one that we are relieved to see Ingrid abandon. Yet despite the denial of a conventional happy ending—I’m not spoiling anything by saying that no dragons are slain, no heroes exactly anointed, and racism is left alive and well—the novel still manages to leave its characters, and its readers, with a surprisingly earnest sense of open-ended possibility.
However, Disorientation had the curious side effect of making me uncomfortably aware of my own envy—of Elaine Hsieh Chou, for writing a delightful Asian American campus novel. As it happens, I’m also working on a satirical novel about graduate school and—broadly speaking—Asian stuff that takes jabs at many of the same tropes Chou’s does. I realized immediately that all Chou’s project has in common with my own is a genre and a general thematic concern—nothing, I suspect, that would give many nonminority writers pause—and was left only with the ugly fact of my first instinctive pang of competition. I was disturbed. Does this mean that the insidious Highlander-like illogic of “the ultimate Asian woman”—there can only be one—continues to get to me, too?
Regardless, after being ground through the mill of my own very personal author envy, paranoiac fear of not-so-secret Asian fetishists, and crushing post-academic anxiety for four hundred pages, I too felt an emotional lightening upon reaching the novel’s epilogue. I left the book feeling giddily exhausted, like I’d really worked through—or been worked over by—something. I’m not sure quite how, but Disorientation prompted me to pause and appreciate, if just for a moment, that there are a few things I’d like for my own sake, outside of social, cultural, or professional expectations: in this moment, a large black-sesame milk tea with boba and grass jelly (75 percent sweetness, 50 percent ice), and maybe a Waffle-Dog; in the longer term, to feel like Ingrid eventually does, unpressured and indeterminate and happy.
Readers will have some inkling of what’s to come if they are familiar with the recent literary scandal involving the pseudonymous Yi-Fen Chou: in 2014 Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man, published a poem in the journal Prairie Schooner using the name of a Taiwanese American high school classmate. He later claimed that the poem had been rejected forty times by journals and magazines when he submitted it under his own name. The deception emerged after the poem was selected for the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology. ↩