Reviewed by Wayne Ng
In Kevin Chong’s career highlighted by dark, original and unpredictable works ranging from a plague (how prescient), to Neil Young, to horse ownership, to a tragicomedy, The Double Life of Benson Yu is only fitting. As metafiction goes, it’s a mouthful to describe. You would be forgiven if at first it seems convoluted and gets away from you. But the rewards for perseverance are grand.
It opens with the point of view of the titular Benson Yu, then a twelve-year-old living with his grandmother in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1980s. She is a stern, tough-love, no pain no gain kind of Chinese grandmother. I had one of those, too. His grandmother dies while Benson’s only other potential caregiver, his hip aunt, Stephanie, is on a cross-continent music tour. She is unable to return and Benson is forced to fend for himself. He tells no one else for fear of being sent to his father. Instead, he continues with school but spends most of his waking hours fighting off pangs of hunger.
Though he lives in the Chinatown bubble, he is already self-reliant. He scrounges for food and does his own laundry—by hand, a scene that is gut-wrenching. He turns to a mysterious neighbour—Constantine, a ninja-like warrior, with whom he seeks refuge.
It doesn’t take long before we are transported to the present day when we see Benson, now an adult and a one-time graphic novelist of some note. Benson is trying to resurrect his career with a bio/memoir of his childhood. Unable to do so, he fictionalizes and embellishes his abuser, and turns him into a mentor (Constantine). However, he loses control of the narrative, and of his younger self in this story within a story.
Things get really interesting and trippy when young Benson is eventually apprehended by child welfare authorities and placed in a rural setting, far from Vancouver. It’s an alternate world and his new guardians are his adult self (who is his father) and his East European-born wife. I did say this was metafiction, did I not?
It is mind-bending and at times unsettling, especially when adult Benson must confront Constantine in a Samurai-take down in order to be free.
The story within a story is framed around the dissonance of the grittiness of 1980s Chinatown and present-day rural dystopia. The 1980’s scenes of Chinatown are richly painted and evocative. We see the family-run shops, and the lonely, aged bachelors who are representative of the preceding generations of Chinese immigrants who survived loss, separation, and instituional racism. Those generations suffered in silence, suppressing feelings and avoiding conflicts and emotional expression. The confused and discombobulated Bensons are the inheritors of that repressed anger.
After his grandmother's death, Benson practices emotional stoicism. He doesn’t allow himself to grieve. Grief is for the idle, a privilege that is before its time. We are deeply sympathetic to his plight and his inner turmoil. All he wants is stability, some control over his life, and a father. It speaks to the generations of Chinese who struggled in the absence of physically and emotionally available fathers.
That adult Benson is a writer as opposed to a cook or an educator is a deft touch. Whether it was intended to be a biographical nod or not, Chong’s choice here injects levity. It’s clear that writing is emotionally laborious and soul-crushing as Benson struggles with the process. What writer can’t relate to that and the characters running away from them?
The Double Life of Benson Yu is a dark tale written in a sparse, economical style leaning heavily on sensory details. Chong deserves full marks for the pure audacity of form. But also for his ambitiousness, particularly as a male in tackling difficult issues, without leaning on immigrant story tropes. Instead, he goes all in, and in doing so, executes boldly and brilliantly.
The Double Life of Benson Yu is published by Simon and Schuster and was just longlisted for the 2023 Giller Prize.