FEBRUARY 16, 2016
YOU COULD, if pressed, get a fairly accurate sense of Carly Hallman’s version of contemporary China by perusing the fictitious news items in her new novel Year of the Goose:
“National Spirit Stagnant, Reports Indicate: Mr. Deng, our nation’s leading Happiness Expert, declined to comment, as he couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed and answer his phone.”
“Ten months after their daughter lost her life to a tragic fire that obliterated a provincial fat camp, Mr. Feng and his wife welcome a new baby boy to their family … ‘Our only hope,’ Mr. Feng says, ‘is that this one doesn’t develop that awful obesity like the last one.’”
Hallman’s fake news, like the best parts of her novel, is both marvelously inventive and within the realm of possibility. Her Health Ministry issues air-quality warnings for “any individuals who may have medical restraints including but not limited to frequent common colds, sleepiness, and/or possession of one or more lungs.” Meanwhile, in the real world, Beijing consumers are buying cans of fresh air from the Rockies. So how much worse can it get?
Hallman, a young, fresh-faced American expat living in Beijing, has a few ideas. Through the story of a murderous snack-food heiress and the wide range of characters — bartenders and fitness instructors, hair-extension tycoons and reincarnated Buddhist monks — whose lives she affects, Hallman maps out a surreal and wobbly moral universe in this bold debut. Goose represents an equally bold choice for Unnamed Press, established early last year with the intention of championing titles that have “international flair.” Year of the Goose has got it in droves.
Kelly Hui, daughter of China’s richest man, is the sole member of the Department of Corporate Responsibility at the Bashful Goose Snack Company. Since the post-Communist years, Papa Hui’s Watermelon Wrigglers and Fried Corn Dough Balls have entranced and fattened the country; the Bashful Goose logo, “iconic as Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen Square,” has marked China’s rise, while the company’s snappy jingle provides “the anthem of a nation with money to burn.” Kelly finds herself confronted by her father’s legacy early on, when a government official pleasantly “invites” Bashful Goose to fund Jiangsu Province’s “very first Government-Certified weight loss reeducation center.”
As an act of atonement for the company’s sins, the reeducation camp is both paltry and belated. But taking on the challenge and handling it well could, Kelly thinks, prove to her dispiritingly robust father that she could one day take on the company. “At this camp, we aren’t just saving calories,” she declares. “We’re saving lives.”
At Fat People Fat Camp, Kelly’s co-worker is Zhao, a fitness trainer passed over for promotion time and time again for aesthetic reasons (buck-toothed, never really clean). Tensions between the two are cleared up almost immediately in a long “sharefest” over confiscated Chips Ahoy and Bashful Goose Seaweed Bites. Both are pretty endearing screwups hoping to make good. But there are no heroes here. Zit-popping Zhao beats the children. Kelly is incompetent, deluded, and hopelessly interested in self-improvement. She once paid to have her nanny robbed at knifepoint. There’s also that nasty incident in LA, where she strangled a vagrant. As I said, no heroes here.
Both are also profoundly unlucky. After a camper slips and dies in the shower, bodies start piling up. One is killed by Zhao after walking into the bloody shower. Two more are trampled to death after the cook decides to hand out candy. Some are decapitated in the kitchen. Others die after being forced to watch “Your Body and Global Warming,” a documentary as questionable as it is menacing (“Monkeys screamed. Smoke rose. Indigenous people, thin arms flailing, fled. Images appeared on the screen of french fries, oil spills, whale blubber, billowing clouds of pollution”). A pigtailed girl chews off her own arm, and campers skid, fatally, on the resultant spit and gore. Two surviving campers flee. The others are stacked in the industrial freezer.
The carnage is, of course, all a matter of how you spin it. “Jiangsu Childhood Obesity Figures Plummet,” headlines proclaim. Zhao is praised for “rehabilitating” all but two campers. “A record, Zhao,” officials croon. While they celebrate this victory against childhood obesity with a feast of “delicious, fatty, juicy meat,” Bashful Goose sends the dead campers’ families a lifetime supply of Yam Jam Snack Cakes.
Meanwhile, Kelly goes Lizzie Borden, giving her father a few whacks with a cleaver. She names “hair tycoon” Wang Xilai as her co-conspirator, even as Papa Hui’s will names him as the company’s rightful heir.
So ends Part One.
Year of the Goose is madcap inventive, à la Mario Vargas Llosa, without Vargas Llosa’s structural ingenuity. Divided into sections, then into chapters, then into a collage of subsections that read like diary entries and blog posts, the novel is a sassy ramble, at times minimally coherent. “The problem with real life is that our stories don’t end,” as one character declares. “They go on and on.”
Accordingly, the second half of the book collapses into an appreciable muddle, not unlike the Chinese housing market. And not unlike the lives of Hallman’s characters. Wang Xilai, who made his fortune selling hair extensions harvested from his clean-living, Web-recruited “Heads,” becomes an emotional wreck after his wrongful arrest. Released from prison after investigators determine that Mama Hui (“who ‘mysteriously’ committed suicide”) is Papa Hui’s real murderer, Wang retreats to the countryside and tries to eke out a new, authentic existence in rural Yunnan.
Soon a community of repentant millionaires develops, shorn of their riches and aching for spiritual purity. Bashful’s mascot goose takes up honest labor at a construction site, laboring on behalf of the people, and the hair tycoon’s star “Head” takes up traditional Chinese medicine.
The goose is, for the record, not part of the Chinese zodiac. But Hallman makes a compelling argument that it belongs there, as fully representative of China as the noble rat, sheep, or boar. Samuel Johnson defined the goose as “a large waterfowl proverbially noted, I know not why, for foolishness.” It’s the patron creature of the wild goose chase; a synonym for fraud (goosed) and futility (your goose is cooked); and a tagline for appetite and extravagance (think golden goose, or stuffed).
Fat-campers sit in the cafeteria awaiting their meal, “saliva glands audibly gushing and gleeking.” An official, alone in his Armani suit, dreams in his slower moments not of his work, his wife, his mistress, but of the spread that awaits him at lunch:
Naan bread, hairy crab, curry, sushi, sea cucumbers, chocolate, dim sum; platters and plates and pots and spreads as far as the eye can see … He loaded and loaded and then hesitated … but then he thought, fuck it, this is a buffet, there are stacks and stacks of clean plates, I am a free man, I am a hungry man, I can come back as many times as I want.
Hallman takes scornful, inventive delight in the excess. At a Bashful Goose banquet, guests are waited upon by Russian models with attentive beverage hovercrafts. Papa Hui and his goose fly overhead, manipulated by cables. Later “a recognizable British film star” helps Papa Hui onto a great white shark that he rides singing through the clear waters of the parting floor. Guests eat their tiger meat from silver dishes, fur and all.
The gorging lasts late into the night. But afterward there is a moment of reckoning. “You know, son,” Papa Hui confides to Wang Xilai,
I’ve spent the past three months preparing for this night. And sure, it was fantastic. But ultimately, what was the point? Waste a bunch of money on a damn party to make everyone feel good about themselves for a short time. They’ll wake up tomorrow with a bad case of the shits and a splitting headache. No one leaves a place like this feeling any less empty than when they came in.
Hallman’s answer to China’s gluttony is a Zen-inspired total retreat from the world that, in its absoluteness, feels more than slightly borrowed from Atlas Shrugged: The millionaires retreat! Paradisiacal hipster communes! Their manifesto is a sly inversion of John Galt’s: “We believe that the best way to cure society of its cancer is to remove its tumors. That we are its tumors.”
Hallman reserves a few jabs for these millionaires, whose sacrifices are ultimately little more than boutique exercises in another kind of self-indulgence. Real peasants don’t have that luxury. Still, it isn’t hard to suss out where the author’s real sympathies lie. In the epigraphs to Part III, the Dalai Lama is juxtaposed pretty pointedly against Deng Xiaoping. (Hint: Only one of them said, “To get rich is glorious.”)
As a Buddhist monk reincarnated as a turtle announces (it’s a long story),
What is life but an in-vain attempt at distancing ourselves from our weakness, from the very flaw of being human? Your expensive car, those false eyelashes, that make-up, those designer clothes, aren’t all of these things and all of the things like them just protective layers, fortresses we build between ourselves and our frailty?
This is classic satire: Say it straight, but with a turtle. And a peanut gallery. “Yeah,” his teenage listener responds. “People suck.”
Hallman targets nearly every facet of mainstream Chinese culture, from its reverence for industry to its comically myopic focus on marriage. (Real analysis from China’s official state news agency: “[A]s women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”) After Papa Hui’s murder, newspapers identify Kelly as “a 24-year-old bachelorette”: “Unable to secure a boyfriend, fiancé, or husband in the United States, despite its abundance of eligible and wealthy men, Ms. Hui returned, single, to China two years ago.”
The novel also supplies a sharp send-up of family ties. “Our parents,” Wang Xilai explains, “wanted us to grow up big and strong and earn lots of money to fund their retirement activities, such as criticizing others’ life choices and taking budget tours of Italy.” The children aren’t much better. When Wang’s mother and father burst into proud tears for his entrepreneurship, he takes a step back to protect his new Nikes.
But it is Hallman’s scatalogical humor that announces her membership in a very specific genus of satirist. (Think of Martin Amis’s protagonist in Time’s Arrow, who poops in reverse.) The goose may be bashful, but there’s no shame here. We are treated to ample cameo appearances by pimples, vomit, and snot. A woman is reduced to an enormous sagging tumor. Old men hock their phlegm into platinum goblets. People shit themselves with shock. Here’s how Hallman describes the camp’s first casualty, the boy who falls in the shower and cracks his skull: “His brains, like bits of ground beef, had leaked out onto the floor and were inching their way towards the drain.”
Hallman’s beef (if you can stomach the pun) with human nature is a familiar one, compellingly rendered, with all the coy rage of an Old Testament prophet. We are gross, covetous, lewd. We can’t stop going back to the buffet.
Disgust is meant to trigger an appalled reaction to the status quo. Buffet, after all, is another word for assault. The monk-turtle tells the story of his former colleague, a 16-year-old migrant worker Little Cancer, who leaves his village after its poison-spewing factory shuts down. Little Cancer walks to the bus station, passing old friends: “One-armed doctor. Boy-Girl. Cyclops. Fish Lady. Legless Skateboarder. Two-Face Aunty […] Three-Foot Driver.” This, too, is not so far from the headlines. (From the BBC: “China Acknowledges ‘Cancer Villages.’”)
Year of the Goose dissolves, near the end, into an eco-mysticism not so easy to tease apart from Hallman’s half-hearted skepticism for it. The narrative washes away. Our protagonists vanish into a generalized complaint. But for much of the novel, Hallman’s complaints are bracingly on-the-mark. As Wang Xilai considers:
If he wanted to feel all optimistic and wonderful, then why would he be complaining in the first place? There was something to be said for the power of commiseration. […] The ability to complain and feel as though your complaints were heard and comprehended, all too often that was better than being handed a solution.