Book Review: ‘Disorientation’ by Elaine Hsieh Chou

In a year when the Dark Academia has been given a new lease on life, ‘Disorientation’ is a standout. The story leans into dark satire to make its point. Elaine Hsieh Chou introduces readers to Ingrid Yang, a PhD student with the most delightfully unhinged energy. Seeing her fall apart and come back together is a frankly aspirational journey. 

The Dark Side of Academia:

For starters, academia is incredibly racist. As someone in the throes of a graduate program, I can firmly attest to this. Even the name of certain degrees (Masters, anyone?) reek of white supremacy and imperialism run amok. It makes sense, then, that all of the -isms find a home in the halls of so-called prestigious institutions. 

‘Disorientation’ is a critical analysis about how far-right ideology is given legitimacy in institutions dominated by white supremacist ideology. The road from nominally liberal professor to full-on Lobster knock-off is a short one. This phenomenon is taken very seriously within the context of the story. It’s refreshing, since this dynamic is rarely taken seriously in the real world.  

American Representation:

We are at a cultural crossroads in North American culture. People (ahem *qwhite* people) grossly misunderstand and misrepresent pretty much anything told to us. Within ‘Disorientation’, it’s easy to see how this plays out. The language of justice and inclusion so easily gets coopted to sound ridiculous, and frankly dangerous in the wrong hands. ‘Disorientation’ captures how casually white people throw around this language without an ounce of self-reflection.

Relatedly, there is such a rich illustration of how entitled the melanin-lacking community is very comfortable in straight-up stealing the stories of other cultures. Cosplaying other cultures by white people takes on a new and sinister meaning in this story. It’s frankly alarming how easily white people can simply claim to be what they are not, and build lives and careers on communities to which we will never belong. 

Dark Humor Dialed Up:

What really makes this story work incredibly well is the use of dark humor and satire. Ingrid is never mocked for her views that have been ingrained in her by a white supremacist society. Instead, she is shown to be a product of systems that are unrelenting and unquestioned by too many. The cosplayer, the Lobster-adjacent professor, and the clueless fetishizing boyfriend are all made fun of relentlessly, as they should be. 

As with any good satire, it makes a point. First, there’s the commentary on the graduate experience itself. It’s a constant grind that wears even the smartest and strongest down to practically nothing. There’s the more broad point that white supremacy is a danger to us all. Although it’s made fun of rightly, the Chou never minces words at how dangerous this entitlement is.

‘Disorientation’ is uproareously funny with a lesson we need now more than ever. Even when Ingrid Yang is imperfect, she’s always allowed to be fully human, trying to come to terms with her identity. It’s a journey we can all relate to. We can all only hope to have the inner courage that Ingrid eventually develops. Academia deserves to be critiqued under a microscope. Works of fiction like this are necessary to doing this real-life work. 

Disorientation is available now. 

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