In “Yellowface,” R.F. Kuang satirizes the publishing industry with a tale of a struggling writer who passes off her recently deceased friend’s book as her own.
YELLOWFACE, by R.F. Kuang
An unreliable narrator is an invitation to a shell game. Watch closely, the book says, and if you’re very attentive, you’ll find the ugly truth hidden beneath layers of pleasant obfuscation and textual sleight of hand. But the unreliable narrator of R.F. Kuang’s “Yellowface” takes a different approach: Instead of hiding the facts, she puts her sordid truth under a glass dome and shines a spotlight over it.
June Hayward is a white woman in her late 20s, attempting to revive a writing career that stalled at the starting line after her debut novel flopped. Meanwhile, her friend Athena Liu — beautiful, charismatic, Asian American — “has everything: a multibook deal straight out of college at a major publishing house, an M.F.A. from the one writing workshop everyone’s heard of, a résumé of prestigious artist residencies, and a history of awards nominations.”
Kuang’s novel opens with these two writers toasting to Athena’s exciting new TV deal while June wonders why they’re friends. She fantasizes about being Athena, feeling “a bizarre urge to stick my fingers in her berry-red-painted mouth and rip her face apart, to neatly peel her skin off her body like an orange and zip it up over myself.” She gets precisely that chance. As they celebrate at Athena’s apartment, Athena dies in a freak accident — and in the confusing aftermath, June steals an unpublished manuscript off her desk.
The manuscript in question is a war epic, “about the unsung contributions and experience of the Chinese Labour Corps, the 140,000 Chinese workers who were recruited by the British Army and sent to the Allied Front during World War I.” Deciding to pass the novel off as her own, June rewrites sections as if she’s tailoring a dress to fit her: She makes Athena’s white characters more sympathetic, introduces a romance between a white woman and a Chinese laborer, and generally smooths over anything that might confuse or alienate a white audience.
Because Athena never showed anyone her working drafts, there’s nothing to stop June from stealing “The Last Front” — at first. But the more success the novel earns, the more scrutiny it attracts, and June finds herself, ironically, fighting a war on two fronts: She has to both navigate a hostile social media landscape criticizing her for cultural appropriation and also scramble to prevent evidence of her very literal theft from coming to light.
“Yellowface” is Kuang’s fifth novel and first foray outside of fantasy. 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, like reading transcripts of someone else’s catty group chat, or watching “Succession.”
Athena’s manuscript brings June all the wild success she’s craved. At her publicists’ behest she rebrands herself from “June Hayward” to “Juniper Song” — her full first name and her middle name — ostensibly to separate herself from her ill-fated debut, but as June notes, “No one says explicitly that ‘Song’ might be mistaken for a Chinese name.” She commissions author photos in which she appears “nicely tanned,” making her appear “sort of racially ambiguous,” and she argues, “It’s not fraud, what we’re doing. We’re just suggesting the right credentials, so that readers take me and my story seriously, so that nobody refuses to pick up my work because of some outdated preconceptions about who can write what.”
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.
The book is most exciting and effective when there’s a grain to read against. June presents herself as an able scholar, but when she makes classical or philosophical references they’re clumsy or erroneous readings (mistaking maenads for naiads when discussing Orpheus, for instance); she presents herself as a good writer, but the few excerpts we see of her prose, separate from Athena’s, are laden with cliché. Her relationship with Athena and Athena’s work is the site of greatest ambiguity, where she most baldly revises previous statements or glosses over contradictions in service of her own experience: Initially June claims Athena’s life was perfect, but later reveals, while weathering a social media storm, that Athena received death threats and vitriol for dating a white man. These 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. An unreliable narrator destabilizes a text, drawing our attention to the ways in which our reading protocols accord them a certain degree of untroubled authority. This isn’t limited to prose fiction, either: The last three years have seen a spate of Art Monster discourses rooted in the ambiguities and subjectivities of authorship and the question of to whom a story can be rightfully said to belong. Disagreements about the substance of “Tár”; the frenzy around Robert Kolker’s magazine article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”; the question of whose story is really told in Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” — these conflicts probe the porous boundaries between art and life and fuel waves of fascination and disgust on social media. “Yellowface” is a kind of Art Monster story, but one that can’t allow room for ambiguity or revelation without rushing in to fill that space.
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. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the book is what it has in common with its protagonist: Like June herself, “Yellowface” seems desperate to not be misunderstood.
Amal El-Mohtar is a Hugo Award-winning writer and co-author, with Max Gladstone, of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”
YELLOWFACE | By R.F. Kuang | 323 pp. | William Morrow | $30