Are you that person whose To-Be-Read pile exists on every table in the house? Are you or have you ever been a recovering grad school student? Are you here for a good time, not a long time?
Welcome to Speed Reader, a rogue missive from your bookish friends at Omoi. Every month or so we'll feature a book from the shop that we read, thought about, and want you to read and think about. Part book club, part recommendation algorithm, if said algorithm was an excited young person shoving a book in your hands with a crazed look in their eyes. Our current pick? Elaine Hsieh Chou's magical, sometimes unhinged and always honest, campus novel, Disorientation. Let's dig in.
Disorientation follows a year in the life of Ingrid Yang, an 8th year PhD student writing a dissertation on a Chinese American poet that she couldn’t care less about. Like most PhD students, Ingrid suffers from bouts of extreme procrastination: 8 years in, she is most likely to be found languishing on the floor clutching a bottle of antacids with a mouth full of junk food than doing any actual research. Ingrid has been pushed into studying Xiao-Wen Chou's work by her advisor Michael, a charismatic white professor who heads the school's department of East Asian Studies and is a Chou scholar himself.
Ingrid, who is Taiwanese-American, struggles to care very much about her subject. But quitting would require her to admit that, at 29 years old, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. And so she continues to show up to her university's Xiao-Wen Chou archives day after day, diligently studying the same poems over and over again, while her brain slowly disassociates and imagines wild scenarios involving the local librarian and her assistant.
One day, during a routine stroll through the archives, Ingrid stumbles upon an unexpected clue about Chou's real identity. Is it possible that Chou is not who he seems? Hot on the trail of an exciting discovery (and a new opportunity to procrastinate on her dissertation), Ingrid enlists the help of her best friend Eunice, plunging headfirst into a rabbit hole that sends her life into a tailspin. What she discovers about Chou will not only change the course of her dissertation but also her worldview. As the events Ingrid instigated spiral out of control, she’ll have to confront her sticky relationship to white men and white institutions—and, most of all, herself.
The trope of the coming-of-age campus novel goes a little like this: a young student, typically a white man, enters an elite institution and undergoes an existential crisis that teaches them some kind of greater revelation about the world. By contrast, Disorientation is a coming of consciousness novel, pushing Ingrid to uncomfortable truths about the world she's been living in. Chou's identity, once revealed, also reveals the unspoken rules of Ingrid's world: what defines an identity, who gets to claim it, and who profits off it. Cancel culture, idealist activism, millennial languishing, and the pervasive threat of racism against Asian Americans hover in the background, ready to strike at any moment. It's also one of the funniest books we've ever read. Disorientation has been described as “a wild satire of 21st century campus life," and with good reason: Ingrid has an uncanny knack for getting herself into (and out of) absurd situations. You need a lot of humor to get through this topsy turvy world, Chou seems to say. Whatever the opposite of “Dark Academia” is called, it’s this.
Ingrid spends a fair amount of time inhaling processed snack food during most of the book's pivotal scenes (including a memorable tour of the local waffle dog factory). As you read Disorientation, consider GoPuffing buying several bags of high-sodium snacks, tuning into Netflix or Hulu's robust Korean drama catalog, and finding a pillow to scream into once the existential dread settles in.
What to Read Next
If you’re intrigued by the academic settings (or are a recovering grad student yourself) watch The Chair, on Netflix, which follows Sandra Oh as the first Asian American chair of her university’s esteemed English department, as she discovers that her job isn’t exactly what she expected (read: a complete and utter headache).
Love to see elite institutions getting a taste of their own medicine? Portrait of a Thief by Grace Li follows a group of Asian American amateur thieves as they stage a heist to take back Chinese artifacts stolen by western museums.
Til Next Time
Thanks for reading along! Check back next month for our next read, and remember—always, always follow your instincts!