Review by Sierra Dickey
By page 17 of Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, you know you are in for some really dark stuff: “A rat king is a group of rats melded together by the tail, whether through blood or encrusted trash. They grow together, so entangled, and when you see a rat king: run!” At that point in the essay titled On the Rat Race, we’ve been introduced to a dead sister, an addicted nephew, and aging parents, but when we meet the rat king, it’s comes as the collection’s first true proposition in beast form: are you prepared for disgust? You better be, because this book is going to get gross. Instead of run, like children warned at the end of a fairy tale, we adult readers can only stare. We stare after that mutated mischief and step deeper into the damp subterranean tunnel that Hoang has (surprise!) already ushered us inside.
Although I’m still unsure as to whether the collection is a taxonomic compendium of current beasts (like addiction, cancerous bodies, pharmaceutical drugs, obstinate fucking, and food), or a magnificent gothic house inside which Hoang keeps her own beasts well fed on meaty freshness, it’s clear that A Bestiary is well infused with magic. And magic that only a close study of fairy tales and myth would be able to access. In the Winter section of On Measurement, Hoang recalls fiction workshops (one at Cornell, another perhaps in Iowa) where: “I taught fairy tales and myth and magical realism and just plain magic. Students wrote stories of the travails of shape-shifting foxes, the housing of damaged souls, eternal return” (p 53). But as Hoang writes them, even quotidian settings like workshop see magic pondered and spoken of morphing into magic taking place. Take the class icebreaker she describes on 51: “The students chanted, ‘Light as a feather, stiff as a board,’ again and again—until: a girl began to lift off the ground. Her classmates’ fingers barely touched her. She was rising, as if effort and determination alone could bring forth magic.”
This is the way that magic in Hoang’s book works on us –– in the impossibly smooth submersion into that dark parallel world where things like the rat king scurry. Although she doesn’t state it until page 142: “I have tangled the fairy tales I write with my life,” Hoang lapses in and out of the real and supposed on every page. Her pieces dance back and forth from childhood to middle age, from Vietnam to Texas, and Chinese myths to Greek vagrants like Dionysisus and Theseus. In essay after essay, our cultural compartmentalization is progressively dissolved. This is not to say that A Bestiary slips one into a happy multicultural melting pot, but rather that Hoang absorbs us into her heady allegoric world where daemon Kairos has a female sidekick, Persephone is an anorexic, Charming (that drip) misses Sleeping Beauty’s wake up call by a season, and rabbits outperform tigers and foxes. Hoang’s lines describe her own unusual narrative style as a kind of knitting on 51: “My fingers looped yarn, and something solidified, quickened into something else.” And she knows what her purling needles do, confessing: “I unstitch the real and out tumbles magic” (55).
If you can restrain yourself enough to read this book the cherry picker’s way, and hop around from essay to essay, you will have achieved a rarer form of hedonism than most. There is a deep pleasure in consuming Hoang’s standalone pieces by themselves, and it will likely bring you around to her expertly poised connections quicker. I advise you to proceed in this way because I was incapable of doing it. I sat down and gobbled the book whole, with one piece bleeding into the next, like the yellow yoke deflating on my breakfast plate. You will be very tempted to do as I have done. Hoang’s characters (both beastly and beautiful, and all perverted innocents) are secretly seductive like that quiet new friend who sits down with you at the outdoor café and begins to suddenly divulge about their marriage or affair or sticky mental illness. You’ll be surprised at first, glancing around at barista and old man with word search to gauge their range of hearing, then honored and self-satisfied next (you’re so trustworthy and a good listener – it must just radiate off of you), and for the rest of the time completely rapt.
Sierra Dickey writes essays, ads, and emails from Brattleboro, Vermont where she is also a contributing editor to The Hopper. Her 2014 essay on life on Cape Cod ("The Lives of the Plovers") is included in The End of Nature -- a forthcoming collection from Trinity University Press.