This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3.11.16
Many children grow up reading Aesop’s fables. With cute animals illustrating life lessons in short, minute-long stories, what’s not to love?
Slow and steady wins the race.
Please all, and you will please none.
Better no rule than cruel rule.
In her debut novel Year of the Goose, Carly J. Hallman investigates whether or not unbelievable amounts of money can, in fact, buy happiness. (No. The answer is no. And here’s the other thing: in this story, the goose is evil.)
Set in a stylized version of China, Goose follows a series of rants and confessions from a rainbow of outrageous characters: the heiress to Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful corporation; China’s most innovative organic hair farmer, now in hiding; the soul of a monk now inhabiting the body of a turtle; a prized hair model, who has recently decided to leave the industry and pursue something—anything—else. Each story is more earnest and strange than the last.
Take Kelly Hui, for example: twenty-four, only offspring of Papa Hui, founder of Bashful Goose Snack Company and China’s richest man. With an Hermès bag in one hand and a degree from USC in the other, she is sick with the type of ennui that only plagues the ridiculously wealthy. To prove to her father that she is fit to continue the family legacy, she asks him to sign the check to sponsor a government-sanctioned Fat Camp, which she aims to run. What better way for Bashful Goose to appease the public than to sponsor this altruistic activity?
Alas, things unravel in ways she did not anticipate:
Yes, if any one of these campers had looked up, her or she would have watched in horror as Kelly and Zhao successfully stuffed [Camper] Nine away in the storage closet, and then returned to the boys’ dormitory building, where they emerged mere minute later dragging the corpse of another of their fellow campers, Camper Fourteen, and then rolling him too across the courtyard where his body would meet the same fate….”
How many of the campers die? The first death is a genuine accident: Camper Fourteen slips in the shower. “He lay there for many minutes,” Hallman writes, “and in one of those many minutes, his ghost left his body.” Camper Fourteen’s bunk-mate Camper Nine is the one who finds him. He screams until Kelly and her camp partner Zhao arrive, until they make him stop:
Camper Nine shut his mouth and then opened it again, releasing the beginning of what would’ve surely been another long scream had Zhao not tackled him to the ground, pulled a small club from his pocket, and whacked him in the head.
No, Year of the Goose is not for hearts with paper armor but neither is it an ode to violence, or a skewering of China. Rather, it is a critique of decadence in all its forms. In one section, an official in Macau can comprehend nothing but the feast in his presence, not even his Rolex or his Armani suit:
No, he thought of food, just food, of the platters of sashimi before him, of these elegantly-displayed, beautifully cut pieces of raw fish, of the drool that pooled around his gums.
All of it is there—naan, hair crab, dim sum, “platters and plates and pots and spreads as far as the eye could see.”
Loud and lush and laugh-out-loud funny, Hallman does well leading the circus of her own making. Year of the Goose is an addictive, delightfully dark novel.