(Quick Note: I’m moving CC to Thursdays. Wednesdays just aren’t working out for me)
Ken Liu is awesome across the board, but he really knocked it out of the park with Paper Menagerie. It was the first story to win the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy award. It’s kind of brilliant.
This isn’t remotely the first story about a kid recognizing the value of their heritage too late. Versions of this story are all over the place, and they usually suck. It’s a subject so inherently prone to cheese and ham-fisted emotional manipulation that it’s very easy to do it poorly. Liu doesn’t, though, and it’s because he writes stories the way I like to sell things: he makes the reader do the work.
If you boil this story down to its rough essence it is this:
1) Boy has connection with mom
2) Boy develops values incompatible with connection
3) Boy breaks mom’s heart
4) Boy gets upset when he realizes he’s an unforgivable asshole
Do you know what isn’t a natural human inclination? Feeling sorry for an asshole who gets what he deserves. Do you know what people do when this particular asshole gets what’s coming to him? They cry, and then give Ken Liu all the awards ever. And it’s their own fault, too, because Liu doesn’t believe in telling his readers how to feel. He just distracts them until they trip into having their hearts cut open.
We talked about the vanishing element of humor in Brief Candles and how that was used to lead the reader into the investment needed to pull of the ending. The psychology at work here is similar, except we never get a laugh. The entire first scene is sweet, delicate, and there to show the readers the special, unique bond the boy and his mom have. Dad can’t make him stop crying, but Mom can, with this special trick.
“Zhejiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.
I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.
There’s no flim-flammery here, nothing flashy or grabby. Everthing is matter-of-fact and straightforward. The sentences are sparse, proof-like to the point of “and thus.” We trust the narrator to be straight with us because there’s no sign he’s planning to do anything else, and we accept that his mother can make animated paper creatures because of course she can. This is the narrative voice of fables and magical realism and Realtors who will soothe you right into buying a house.
This scene also gives us the grounding we need for the culture clash that becomes so important later. Liu doesn’t rush us, though. We get a sweet story about how Mom and Dad met. Nevermind that it’s rather creepy and says unpleasant things about dad – the story will bring us to that later – right now what we’re seeing is a delightful little love-at-first sight vignette. Now the reader has the facts, and since it’s done after we got whimsical paper animals we’re rolling right along with it. If you got to the end of that section without going, “Ugh, mail order bride, squick!” then you’ve already fallen for the trap. We’re only at the end of the second section and you, dear reader, are toast.
Liu’s ambitious, though. So we get a longer scene telling us more about the animals, building our relationship with them, getting us really invested especially in Laohu and the shark. Note that not once in this section do we see a direct interaction between the narrator and his mom. She’s there, but as a background figure. The closest we come is when he asks her for the shark, a thing we’re told in half a sentence that moves on, not one of the moments actively illustrated for us. Mom’s there, we aren’t going to forget her, but all of our bonding is with the Menagerie.
And Mom’s still not really there in the next scene, either. We have two strange women, we finally get a name for our narrator, but the scene hinges on her absence so much that the moment she wanders in, awkwardly, the scene’s over. This, dear readers, is the thin end of the wedge on what should be our unflagging loyalty to Mom.
A wedge that gets hammered home by Obi Wan Kenobi. Wow is Mark ever a jerk, and this is where something really neat happens. Mark’s the first to discount the menagerie as worthless trash, and we’re hurting for Jack when it happens. We’re hurting so much that when he goes and does the exact same thing, he doesn’t lose our sympathy. Liu has redirected our natural outrage to Mark, even though Jack is just as guilty of the same crimes, more so even since he really ought to know better.
The next two sections are all about Mom disappearing. No direct interaction, just a description of the variety of ways they don’t interact. If you ever want a sequence to throw at somebody who’s had the “Show don’t tell” mantra imprinted on their psyche, shove this at them.
If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her. After a while, she tried to use more English. But her accent and broken sentences embarrassed me. I tried to correct her. Eventually, she stopped speaking altogether if I were around.
It’s all telling, and this sequence works because we’re told all of it. It wasn’t visceral or meaningful enough for the narrator at the time that he’d bother to go into specifics and show it to us. Worse, if he did, we’d probably forget about how much he was hurt (that was shown) and start taking up for Mom. We get the information because we need it, but we’re not wasting time on it. Which is exactly what Mom would want, since this sequence is all about her disappearing act, to the point where she sends Jack away just in time to die off screen. Let’s face it, if he’d been there when she died, it would have been melodramatic and tacky. Liu know’s what he’s doing when he buries plot moments.
Let’s take a second to talk about Susan, because she’s a particularly subtle bit of brilliance. We don’t get a description of her, but given an absence of description and what we know about Jack, she’s probably white. And unlike every other white character in the entire story, Dad included, she doesn’t reinforce Jack’s distancing from his mother and his heritage. She doesn’t preach at him, either. Just a compliment about his mom’s artwork, and then decorating their living space with it. Susan is the only character in the story who treats Mom well and Liu does absolutely nothing to draw our attention to that. But the fact that Jack is somebody who’d both choose Susan for his girlfriend and who she’d choose to be with tells us a whole lot about adult Jack that we wouldn’t believe if he told us himself. And he confirms it for us on screen when he’s nice to Laohu.
The effort Jack has to go through in order to read the letter is just Liu sharpening a knife before he hands it to you. And then just has his protagonist sit down on a bench with a stranger. That’s all the happens. He sits there. There is nothing else going on in the story at that point. That emotional roller coaster you go on while the letter gets read? That’s you stabbing yourself with that knife Liu handed to you. You can quit at any time. I mean, come on now, mom’s dead. Her suffering is over. Why are you hitting yourself?
Son, I know that you do not like your Chinese eyes, which are my eyes. I know that you do not like your Chinese hair, which is my hair. But can you understand how much joy your very existence brought to me? And can you understand how it felt when you stopped talking to me and won’t let me talk to you in Chinese? I felt I was losing everything all over again.
Why won’t you talk to me, son? The pain makes it hard to write.
Translation: Here I am, right here, on screen, not fading into the background, and I’ve been here the whole time. Of course Jack is devastated. And since we’ve been on his side and just had what an asshole he is rubbed in our faces, we’re devastated, too. Dear fellow audience members: We totally picked the wrong team. At least Jack gets a tiger to cuddle and comfort him. All we get is the uncomfortable realization that Liu is prolific, and probably going to do that to us again.
Next week: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber.
After that: Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel.