Why do people want to be something other than they are? That is the question at the center of Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel, Disorientation, the story of an American college campus left in turmoil after the discovery that a recently deceased and beloved, award-winning Chinese-American poet and professor, who rose to fame by writing sappy lines on moons, rivers and mothers were actually white.

Following real scandals such as Yi-Fen Chou, the Chinese poet who turned out to be a white man, Jamake Highwater, the Cherokee poet who turned out to be a white man, and HG Carrillo, a Cuban-American professor and writer who turned out to be a black man, Disorientation is the story of Xiao-Wen Chou who turns out, after faking his death, to be a white man named John Smith. The woman who discovers the deception is Ingrid Yang, a Taiwanese-American graduate student so desperate for a unique angle for her thesis on Chou’s poetry that she breaks into her old house. She thinks the media-shy poet must have been hiding something, and she assumes he must have been gay. She searches for evidence so she can release him posthumously (and get a warrant for his brilliant ideas), but instead of a male lover, she finds wigs, pancake makeup, and eye tape.

The history of academia and literature is replete with tales of charlatans and swindlers who pretend to be one thing or another, taking advantage of the pity and gullibility of those who desire authenticity but would not recognize it. if it set their shoes on fire. Unfortunately, Chou seems intimidated by the topic, unsure of the motives of any of the fakers, and afraid to say anything that might offend the sensitive college students who are both her target and primary audience, so we are left with a lukewarm but eager-to-please campus romance that fails to satisfy any of its purposes.

Chou should really turn the knife she’s just pushing with a stick. Steve, Ingrid’s white boyfriend who translates Japanese literature despite not being able to speak Japanese or having been to Japan, should be drawn much more clearly. Rather than helping the reader understand Stephen as a character, Chou wants to decide whether his behavior can be condemned, and there are long conversations in the text on this very topic that lead to no clear conclusion. “Have you ever considered depriving Japanese-American translators of opportunities? Who has an emotional connection to the text? a newly awakened Ingrid confronts Stephen. These back and forths are as tedious in the novel as they are on social networks and academia.

Increasingly, when reading contemporary fiction by new writers, it’s easy to think “this could have been a personal essay”. The real big reveal isn’t that Xiao-Wen Chou is a white man, it’s that Ingrid’s boyfriend has Asian ex-girlfriends. Upon learning this, Ingrid “had vomited twice in the trash”. “No American English idiom could accurately convey the feeling of discovering that your fiancé had not one, but three ex-girlfriends…of East Asian descent, which was, by the way, coincidentally , which Ingrid Yang herself was.” It’s supposed to be shocking.

The author turns away from the main fraud story to spend all his time mediating the feuds that have dominated the personal essay space for years now. Is a white man’s attraction to Asian women a fetish? Should a white person ever play an Asian role? Is it wrong to date someone outside of your race? Is it internalized racism to use bleach on the skin? She tries to make her protagonist Ingrid morally pure, a naïve Voltairean, but she achieves this by making her less than brilliant. For Ingrid to be easily manipulated by her white superiors, her white boyfriend, and her white supremacist culture, she must have no political ambitions, thoughts, preferences, or beliefs. She studies Xiao-Wen Chou because she was told it would help her get tenure, not because she likes her poetry; his own interests remain obscure beyond a vague reference to “modernism”. It takes her a frustrating time to figure out that a name she’s looking for in the archives, Retlaw Ekul Nosbig, is just backwards.

For a book that berates its characters for relying on cheap clichés when it comes to race, the prose depends on them for expression. Everyone is still “bent over” in laughter, physically jumping in the air when startled, pinching themselves to see if they’re dreaming, rubbing their eyes when they see something they can’t believe. The tone is less slapstick comedy and more children’s cartoon.

This childish vibe continues until the end, where the neglected story of the fraudulent poet turns into a silly conspiracy theory that reveals nothing about how universities work, or the contradictions of having discussions about authenticity at the within a powerful institution that reinforces wealth disparities. It’s kind of like complaining that the Cancun all-inclusive resort you’re staying at doesn’t serve “real” Mexican food. You’re not wrong, exactly, but how much do you ignore to get picky about it?


Disorientation is published by Picador at £14.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books