Our Eternal Pursuit: Year of the Goose by Carly Hallman

We could all use a laugh right about now, a couple hundred pages in which to feel untroubled, buoyant. Maybe believe in the possibility of effervescence again.

Year of the Goose is the book that delivers laughs — irreverent, a little bit mean, morbid and happily cutting, before it slyly pulls the laughter out of our throats. Damn. A muffled sob before we know what’s come over us. But just as soon, another sensation: true levity. This absurdist satire is chameleonic. It goes deeper as it becomes lighter. By that I mean it transcends the bounds of its own genre and even its own ostensible aims. In the end it emerges into the transcendence of hope, which has an unmistakable sound. It’s the beating heart of humanity itself.

The novel begins silly, focused on the misdeeds of one Kelly Hui, 24, Audi-driving, Hermès-toting, junk-food-addled, supremely entitled daughter of the New China’s richest man, Papa Hui, founder and president of the Bashful Goose Snack Company (products include Watermelon Wigglers, copious snack cakes, Tangerine Treats). She can hardly believe she has to go to a business meeting — as the company’s Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, a position that unsurprisingly has never called upon her to actually do anything — in a provincial city that “doesn’t even have a California Pizza Kitchen.” In a corrupt giveback deal (there is no other kind in China’s Rising Dragon era of ecstatic capitalism) she promises her company’s funding for a new program to fight childhood obesity, Fat People Fat Camp. There is going to be no good end here, we can tell. It turns out far worse than that.

This no-gooder starts the novel’s pinball on its lickety-split trajectory, bells ringing and lights flashing, disappearing down one hole and popping out another. A silver streak, it enters one person’s story and then another. Hallman is a master plotter, and a master observer of contemporary foible. She touches on every stupid irony of the modern age, from political doublespeak to corporate management self-help to consumerism’s empty abundance and the search for meaning in a world where it is now found on a shelf, barcoded. She portrays a nation punch-drunk at capitalism’s open bar, as well as a country torn between an ancient belief system based in the supernatural and a headlong embrace of anything superficial, anything Western, and anything expensive (if that isn’t redundant). Along the ragged tear runs an infected scar of angry cynicism.

Humor is a bull’s-eye on the target of intelligent comprehension. It is also a form of poetry because its primary mechanism is compression. Satire is the way humor plays it both smart and dangerous. Jonathan Swift and his Modest Proposal; Alexander Pope and The Rape of the Lock; Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Will Rogers: these and more used the sharpest blade, of wit, to cut directly to the bone of hypocrisy in their times. Ours is neither more nor less hypocritical, for along with death and taxes it remains the third certainty in life. Only the specificities of its manifestation change with the locale and the date (and the iPhone presents an especially attractive target).

Carly Hallman, an American who lives in Beijing, is hardly the first to satirize the modern Chinese brand of insincerity — Mo Yan and Yan Lianke are among the best known to Western readers, though a wide, vibrant literary subculture of mordant comedy persists in China against official efforts to suppress it — but she wields her own genius on the details of the genre. She knows from the inside her own sex’s peculiar weaknesses when it comes to vanity, for instance, not that the female has a lock on this; it’s so universal it afflicts whole landmasses, reference here an official proclamation on “our nation’s burgeoning vanity.” It is the most vain who blame vanity on others.

Speaking of vanity, once Hallman has Kelly lead the reader straight into the viper’s pit — her hair extensions come from a celebrity stylist who has built an empire by setting up an “organic” hair farm staffed by people he calls the Heads — the next arc of this circular journey runs through the cautionary tale of this amoral hair pusher. She pauses to detonate character and culture both in a sentence-length compression. It is in the “Birth of a Capitalist” chapter in the section titled “Memoirs of a Chinese Hair Tycoon” devoted to the personal history of Wang Xilai. As a tender youth, he saw his future in the alluring scissors of a barber.

I heard my grandmother, who’d followed us outside in her cloak, gasp, but all I saw was the metal point before me and the “important” man in front of that, royally irked but also clearly terrified that he might fall victim to one of those killer kids you read about in the papers — the ones who seem like sweet and studious angels until the day they snap and gouge their mothers’ eyes out with chopsticks after being told to eat one last piece of broccoli, or “accidentally” electrocute their father with a hairdryer while he’s in the bathtub after being ordered to spend less time watching anime and more time training to be an Olympic ping pong champ.

This leads to the kind of faux–official propaganda headline she writes so magnificently: “‘Local Boy Wields Scissors Atop Hair Salon, Attempts, Fails to Disrupt Socialist Society.’” Later, naturally, the hair mogul discovers he himself is going bald.

It is in the section devoted to Lulu, the head Head with the most lustrous hair of all, that matters become more serious. Hallman by no means abandons her strategy of lampooning the strike-worthy, but she is in addition a gifted fabulist, inventing transubstantiations that have the feel of Eastern creation mythology — the meaningful fables that inform a civilization’s very self-conception — sprinkled with glitter procured at today’s most au courant stores. A particularly beautiful example is an epiphany that arrives through the portal of Nirvana — the band, as well as man’s desperate search for the real thing. Now people start to appear, then disappear. Literally and figuratively.

“The moral is supposed to come at the end, but the problem with real life is that our stories don’t end. They go on and on.” Hallman foretells the way her novel will “end” — not really — while expertly landing a high-flying truth down the center of literature’s runway.The book’s final import may not be neatly packaged, and couldn’t be as deepy affecting if it were, but the links connecting its many characters are miraculously forged.

Lulu’s existential malaise (bereft of ambition to attain any position available to a young woman of her qualities, she has become the de rigueur mistress of a businessman with no interest in consummating their relationship, keeping her only to save face) is addressed by a turtle who is a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist monk. His story pokes at the open wounds of China’s claim on Tibet and the greed-driven degradation of its land and people. He also, yes, delivers wisdom: “the pursuit of peace has always given rise to the most violent of struggles.”

Today’s One True Religion is based, as Hallman asserts, on the foundation “myth of the millionaire.” One theology is as good as another, Year of the Goose implies. Or as bad. Our cults are many, our eternal desire for meaningful happiness singular. And elusive. So little is as it seems. Lulu ponders this fact as its sadness permeates the novel’s ending, settling like a damp fog on every surface. As our proxy, she searches for happiness through chance, through magic and disaster. In the time called the After after The After, she may have found what she is looking for. Or maybe not. It is in that shifting place, which we might now call literary miracle, we find something that looks very much like an answer.

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