Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

My Rating: 2 stars

Many thanks to Penguin and NetGalley for the ARC! This book is being released today, March 22 2022.

Disorientation follows Ingrid Yang, an eighth year PhD student in East Asian Studies writing her dissertation on a deceased Chinese poet who taught at her university. When she stumbles upon a note in the archive that points to previously unknown information about the poet, she believes it’s the key to her dissertation. What she doesn’t expect is for it to cause her department to implode. I really wanted to love this book. I enjoy seeing books focused on PhD students since I’m one myself, and Chou had the chance to really highlight the problems in academia: sexism, racism, and the general poor treatment of PhD students. And it started off well. The satire of white men fetishizing Asian culture and women was sharp, on point, and funny. However, as the book went on, things started to go down hill.

Even to start, the satire wasn’t particularly subtle, which was fine. Chou was putting a light on very real problems by making fun of them, and I was particularly looking forward to Ingrid realizing that her fiancé is toxic and awful. He’s a white, American man who translates Japanese literature despite not speaking Japanese, by the way. However, the situations started to become more and more over the top to the point of ridiculousness. The plotline with Ingrid’s supervisor, Michael, is a good example of this. It wasn’t funny or even horrifying. It was just ridiculous. The climax in particular made me cringe.

Part of the ridiculousness comes from the characters being caricatures. The social justice activists are depicted as overzealous, over dramatic, and slightly crazy. Every single man is absolutely disgusting. And Ingrid herself is an idiot. I have never encountered a stupider protagonist. She is almost thirty yet acts like a high school student the entire time. I couldn’t believe for a moment that she was in a PhD program. She’s ignorant on basically every topic, including but not limited to, racism, social justice, her own field of study that she’s been looking at for eight years, healthy relationships, and having a basic, human conversation. She made every moment of the book painful.

Which brings me to my last major issue: this book is too long. It’s over 400 pages! It easily could have been half of that without changing anything important about the story. We could have had a few less mental meltdowns from Ingrid (there are a lot). We could have had a few less scenes of her fiancé being a dick (there are also a lot of those). We could have done without the blog/manifesto we get from Michael toward the end. These things didn’t move the plot forward. They didn’t even develop the characters since these traits had already been established (within the exception of the stuff with Michael–but by the point I did not care and I hated that plotline anyway). From the 50% point on, the book just dragged.

Overall, Disorientation has a great premise but the execution leaves much to be desired. I’m sure there are people who will enjoy it, but I found it quite disappointing.

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