The Double Life of Benson Yu

Kevin Chong | The Double Life of Benson Yu

Reviewed by: Brad Hornick

Kevin Chong

The title of Kevin Chong’s book, “The Double Life of Benson Yu,” refers to the protagonist’s internal struggle with leading two separate, yet intertwined, lives. On one level, Benson lives a public life as a renowned artist, celebrated for his imaginative creations as a literary persona. Beneath the surface, Benson harbors deep-seated emotional wounds stemming from childhood traumas and abuse that drive his complicated literary imagination.

Benson Yu tells two stories. In his twenties Benson is famous for creating Iggy Samurai a graphic novel featuring a teenage reptile who lives in New York’s Central Park. Iggy solves crimes alongside Coyote Sensei, a samurai master reincarnated as a coyote. It’s a wild leap whereupon the reader is transported into a world animated by narratives of the online gaming community.

Later in life, Benson Yu writes an autobiographical novel about his upbringing in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1980s. It is a story about a character telling the story about himself. Now a successful comic book creator, Benson’s novel grapples with the complexities of his rather severe family-of-immigrants childhood experience during that epoch in Chinatown.

In an online interview, Chong describes how the first novel is “an infantilized story” in which the young Benson wants to make himself into a hero rather than victim, and someone who was hurt. So the reader watches, for example, as Benson converts a leading character in the story from his abuser into his mentor.

In the latter novel, much is revealed about the metaphorical universe of Benson Yu as a young person who transforms and sublimates his inner psychic scaffolding into heroic rationalizations as a way to reconcile with his traumas. Chong illustrates the challenges in the contradictory process. Benson is “having a tough time because he’s not telling a true story. He is telling a story that is serving a version of himself that wants to keep trauma suppressed.”

Chong describes The Double Life of Benson Yu as “a meditation on how we tell stories [in order] to survive” and he explains that depending on where we are on our own time-space continuum, the stories we tell may, or may not, serve us anymore. The division of the book into two sections palpably demarcates those psychic breaks, but it’s Chong’s ability to examine his own feelings and behaviours throughout the book that demonstrates the complexity of the process.

Along with all the psycho-therapeutic depth, Chong has a talent for descriptive detail of place and characters. Two areas stand out. The first is how well Vancouver’s Chinatown of the 1980s evokes distinct sensory impressions of the shops, restaurants and alleyways as well as inhabitants of the neighbourhood in that era, before gentrification dramatically changed its character.

“Every week on Sundays this depleted family unit makes the rounds to the markets for dried scallops for pea shoots and water crests, for oxtail and tripe. Everyone knows Poh-Poh. She used to teach Chinese school to half of them in the church basement. Everyone stands up straighter, eyes jittering, the second she appears.”

A second is the world of the samurai comic books in which readers are transported to a vibrant and dynamic landscape where anthropomorphic animals coexist with humans. Central Park serves as the central hub of activity, providing a backdrop for the protagonist, Iggy Samurai, to embark on his daring adventures and unravel mysteries. Alongside his mentor, Coyote Sensei, Iggy Samurai navigates a series of thrilling escapades, facing off villains and overcoming obstacles with bravery and ingenuity.

“The Samurai gets the shaft in both nature and nurture. Born to a sociopath and a crazy lady with boundary issues. Never make things easy for your hero, who broods over that sword the next day at work and flies through his tasks more silently than normal. Mickey’s joking around and smiling exceed his baseline exuberance.”

Chong transports us to these different worlds and at the same time sensitively portrays the temporal struggles faced by Benson and his family as they navigate the complexities of life in a new country. From the challenges of assimilation and the tensions between the immigrant journey vis-a-vis individual identity and the universal existential struggles of humans becoming self-aware, the novel offers nuanced insight into the beauty of a human mind reconciling intimate threats with personal equanimity.

The Double Life of Benson Yu should be read and celebrated for the power of its multi-layered storytelling. It is not difficult to understand why this book was short-listed for the Giller Prize. The Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival is honoured to be able to host Kevin Chong and eagerly awaits his reflections.