In 2015, my undergraduate institution was embroiled in heated campus debates involving histories of racism and free speech that played out across a handful of controversies. Student activists pushed to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; denounced a Mexican-themed party; and lambasted a student group called “Urban Congo” comprised mostly of white men who danced around in loincloths. Parallel incidents erupted across other college campuses. For the better part of a year, these topics occupied us over meals and in seminars. Crowded into a friend of a friend’s dorm room, we flirted by loudly asking over the thumping beats of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”: Have you seen the most recent New York Times piece? What’s your take?
Throughout the seven years that have elapsed since then — as my graduate school exhaustion crusted over my undergraduate enthusiasms — the free speech debates have persisted tirelessly on university campuses. They follow more or less the same script as they did in 2015. Students criticize or protest a speaker/event/text. The media picks it up, and then people (usually white, wielding some sort of institutional power) start yelping about free speech — they grumble about cancel culture, bemoan snowflakes or defend the right to write (poorly) about “nonwhite experiences” — all the while disregarding the fact that protest is itself a paradigmatic expression of speech. Brandon Taylor diagnoses the problem with the arguments for free speech that have been bandied about over the past couple of years: In short, they are hypocritical. Those who once silenced others are suddenly shocked that they can’t say whatever they want without consequences.
In a debate as tired as free speech on campus, what can literature offer? Enter Elaine Hsieh Chou’s chaotic new campus novel. In response to the question of what literature can add to a zombified discourse, Disorientation suggests that it can dramatize the discourse and reveal its absurdities. Ambitiously taking on campus issues including free speech and cultural appropriation, Chou’s novel follows the travails of 29-year-old Ph.D. student Ingrid Yang as she struggles to finish her dissertation. Ushered by her dissertation advisor into studying Xiao-Wen Chou, a Chinese American poet whom she finds mostly uninspiring, Ingrid makes an impulsive decision to play amateur sleuth after discovering a mysterious note in the archives.
Chou’s novel is billed as a work of satire. Satire “works” by deploying exaggeration to launch a critique: "See how absurd this is!" says the satirist. Re-presenting the free speech debates on campus in an exaggerated manner thus — theoretically — throws the absurdity of the arguments into stark relief. Turning the pages of Disorientation was like seeing my college years refracted through a funhouse mirror; the novel is chock-full of eerily familiar scenes. After a campus controversy over yellowface, Ingrid’s advisor pens a manifesto titled “In Defense of Freedom” (DOFO) and garners an online fandom. There is a protest of a theater production and an acerbic backlash, notably with Asian Americans on both sides. There is a scene in which a white dude “plays the devil’s advocate” (Don’t we all know one of those?).
Satire is distinct as a genre in that satirists are explicitly oriented towards critique. The question then arises: What can satire do when so many of us are already familiar with the critique or in any case, tired of the debate? Indeed, in the case of the free speech debates, the problem is not just that the critiques are repetitive. The repetition betrays another issue at play: that the quality of the arguments is beside the point. As the art critic Hal Foster observes in What Comes After Farce?, we now live in a culture that is not only post-truth but also post-shame. It is not clear how one can satirize something that is already obviously absurd — and unabashedly so.
As I recognized the instances when recycled arguments about free speech are leveraged to silence students of color, I was filled not with enlightenment but with dread. Disorientation often assumes an overly naïve reader: one who hasn’t been in proximity to a college campus or looked at a newspaper over the last decade, who is still able to laugh at the dysfunction of our university campuses — and by extension, our cultural discourse. In its attempts to satirize, the novel dwells more in re-presentation than revelation. Disorientation acts as a mostly accurate time capsule from 2015 — it dutifully records a past, but without gesturing towards a future.
Satire often relies on caricatures to score a point. This can be an effective strategy. But in doing so, satire also forecloses the possibility of being surprised by those around us. In Disorientation, Ingrid’s thesis advisor is one of the many white male scholars in the field of East Asian Studies. Ingrid’s fiancé, a white man, has all the telltale signs of yellow fever: He translates Japanese literature, is obsessed with Japan and has dated exclusively Asian women. A fellow graduate student — the president of the Asian American Capitalist Club, ha ha! — is an archetypal Asian American conservative. Ingrid’s nemesis-turned-quasi-friend represents the woke campus activist.
People fall into stereotypes, but they also exceed them. The best moments in Disorientation are when this happens. I was most affected by Disorientation when Ingrid is alone with her best friend, a fellow graduate student named Eunice. Eunice is a character whose inclusion in the novel does not feel explicitly instrumental to making a point. Her existence is not oriented towards speaking to whiteness, masculinity, Asian American conservatism or performative wokeness. She is just Eunice: funny, sexy, smart and fiercely devoted to her best friend Ingrid.
In the scenes that focus on Ingrid and Eunice, Disorientation seems less concerned with meting out well-worn political commentary and more interested in how enjoyable being with other people can be. This might be the most potent political message in Disorientation: in a post-truth, post-shame society in which prevailing modes of critique have lost steam, perhaps there is something to be said for the simple joys of having some fun with the people we love. And Disorientation is nothing if not fun. Graduate students attempting to execute stakeouts and heists? A climactic scene that rivals the final action sequence of a Marvel flick? A cathartic breakup that culminates in literal flames? Sold, sold and sold. That Disorientation takes on a gamut of campus issues in the form of a coherent — and eminently entertaining — story is no small feat. The novel may not be original in its critique, but it did make me smile and turn to the next page. And isn’t there some small wonder in a novel that makes us smile in these times?