Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars. But Athena's a literary darling. June Hayward is literally nobody. So when June witnesses Athena's death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena's just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers during World War I. So what if June edits Athena's novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song—complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn't this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That's what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree. But June can't get away from Athena's shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June's (stolen) success down around her.
Every once in a while there is a novel that enters the literary zeitgeist and requires discourse — but it feels like there is nothing that can be written or said that will ever do it justice. This is the feeling R.F. Kuang's new novel Yellowface evokes ... Highly immersive ... A thrilling journey ... The story is a multi-layer, complex conversation that tackles a few things about the publishing industry at once ... Kuang's first foray outside of fantasy is a well-executed, gripping, fast-paced novel about the nuances of the publishing world when an author is desperate enough to do anything for success. I was consistently at the edge of my seat until the very last page.
Kuang’s narrative palpates the nuances of cultural performance and writerly ethics, finally concluding that all authors steal for material anyway ... By making Athena into an avatar of literary ruthlessness, Kuang transforms what could have been a character with foibles and compulsions into a universal, and thus somewhat boring, archetype: the writer who wrecks her relationships and transgresses every boundary for the sake of her work ... This figure is that perfect romantic compound of bad person and good artist, but it is only an ideal, and thus tedious to encounter in a novel ... June’s background is composed of heavy-handed mentions of family strife and a description of college-era sexual trauma, but her personality remains mostly undelineated, clunking into gear only when the plot needs it to ... June’s stupidity is so obvious that it feels scheduled ... None of this is helped by the novel’s treatment of its publishing industry milieu. Even as June is saved at every turn by oblivious and insensitive publishing professionals, the book neglects to describe the shared mannerisms, rituals or lodestars that give an industry its texture. The literary agents in “Yellowface” are so lacking in specificity as to be interchangeable, but not in a redemptively parodic way. Elsewhere, the novel lurches into colorless, explanatory asides about publishing that are so functional, it’s as if an old TV has been wheeled out ... Perhaps Yellowface has demonstrated that our world is simply not load-bearing enough to support a traditional literary satire.
It’s a breezy and propulsive read, a satirical literary thriller that’s enjoyable and uncomfortable in equal measure; occasionally, it skirts the edges of a ghost story. It’s also the most granular critique of commercial publishing I’ve encountered in fiction, and seeing the cruel, indifferent vagaries of one’s industry so ably skewered is viciously satisfying ... Written in first-person present tense, June’s voice has the zippy, immersive cadence that’s been associated with young adult novels since at least The Hunger Games. It’s a shrewd choice that makes June sound younger than she is — sometimes immature; sometimes demanding pity; sometimes outright deranged. The result is both addictive and slightly sickening ... If this reads as a quite on-the-nose critique of contemporary conversations about race and appropriation, that’s because it is. This is not a subtle book. It is in fact so obvious that it makes one wonder why Kuang uses the device of an unreliable narrator at all. I kept expecting the whole novel to snap into something more elaborate, more complex — to have to match wits with June, to catch her in a lie within a lie, to experience some sort of revelation from an accumulation of evidence. Instead, June’s methodology is consistently to tell the reader her trespasses and offer flimsy justifications for them ... Moments suggest the kinds of layers and intrigue the book could have maintained if it weren’t so committed to showing its hand ... This obviousness isn’t necessarily a flaw — but it is puzzling ... When Yellowface is a satire, I want it to be sharper; when it’s horror, I want it to be more frightening; when it’s a ghost story, I want it to be more haunting; when it suggests a vampiric, parasitic relationship, I want it to be more inviting, more ambiguous, more strange. Instead, all its genre fluidity is in service of the same blunt frankness.