review: YEAR OF THE GOOSE by carly j. hallman

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.

review: YEAR OF THE GOOSE by carly j. hallman

This review was originally published at on 1.4.16

Crawl before you walk, they say. Break through then follow your muse once you’ve got everyone’s attention. Carly J. Hallman wants none of that. Her debut novel, YEAR OF THE GOOSE, takes us to a version of contemporary China where tycoons are throwing tantrums, obese children are getting slaughtered to improve the country’s overall demographic, and UFOs are taking over night clubs. The talking goose is talking and one of China’s finest organic hair models has gone missing. It’s hilarious. It’s insane.

There is a certain charm to it, though, like when you’re the only sober person at your boyfriend’s friend’s New Year’s Eve party. You shuffle from room to room and strangers pull on your arm and tell you stories, each one more outrageous than the last, and you start to wonder how these people even came to be at the same party—is it even the same party?—until, at midnight, everybody comes together to count down from one year into the next. With GOOSE, each section of the book is one of those party goers unloading his or her woes (this happened to me, this really happened). In lieu of the countdown, there is the final section of the book, where all the characters meet and the chaos switches from the past to the present.

It’s a lot to tackle but becomes easier to talk about—and construct, I imagine!—when framed under the guise of a fable: once upon a time, there was a magical goose who gave China its most successful corporation, Bashful Goose Snack Company, and it was not a blessing.

Hallman received her degree in writing and rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin but has lived in Beijing for the past four years. When I ask her via email whether it was a conscious decision to write about her second home for her first book, she reports that it was a mission a long time coming. “I first visited China in 2006, and since then I knew I wanted to write a book about the place,” she writes. “It pulses with life; there are stories, familiar and strange, everywhere you turn,” despite that “in the western media, China is always painted as this very foreign, almost alien, place.”

But just as the American experience isn’t completely contained within the context of the American Dream, a concept that Hallman tells me motioned a movement in China a couple years ago called the Chinese Dream campaign, Chinese citizens “aren’t regularly running their mouths about the Tiananmen ‘incident’ or anything.” Instead, history functions more as an ongoing discussion: “Among every grouping of families and friends, there are countless anecdotes and stories that challenge, directly or indirectly, every part of the ‘official’ narrative.”

Hallman’s argument? If the Chinese experience varies at an individual level—because of course it does!—then our (Western) art about it, by extension, should reflect dimension and diversity as well. The issue is that “a lot of the literature about China that’s written in English by westerners is either an Amy Tan type story—someone with Chinese heritage writing a family saga—or nonfiction by a white guy who goes to China and has some cultural misunderstandings.” Not that Amy Tan can’t write, but Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Murong, and Shen Keyi are out there, too, writing “hilarious and brave and surreal and badass” books that inspired Hallman to attempt to “widen the scope of what we (westerners) write about when we write about China.”

Always, always Hallman remembers that she is an American in China, an important distinction that shapes not only how she moves through the world but how GOOSE represents both countries and their peoples. In Hallman’s novel, America is the country that is far and foreign but it never reads as though America is the Promised Land and China something ridiculous. Flipping that scenario, GOOSE never presents itself as a story that takes place in America but uses Asian-sounding names and take-out boxes to say, “Hey, look, we’re in China!”

Yes, it’s stylized, and yes, there’s hyperbole all over—when I ask her about it, Hallman says that she “loves [hyperbole] more than anything in the whole wide world”—but “much of what’s in the book is rooted in reality, believe it or not.” According to Hallman, while modern China has opportunity, glitz, and endless possibility, it also has the pollution, corruption, and unchecked greed to match.

“Visit real China and I promise you’ll see childhood obesity and corporate decadence and old ladies selling turtles on the roadside and rich kids with amazing haircuts cruising around in half-million dollar cars,” she writes. “That stuff is all 100% real.”

So, what kind of publisher rallies around a book like this? GOOSE is one of those punks with a half-shaved head and piercings in places that are meant to make you (the onlooker) feel uncomfortable. GOOSE is loud as hell and not at all sorry. GOOSE is the December title from our friends at Unnamed Press. Since our introduction to them back in May with Gallagher Lawson’s THE PAPER MAN, we have followed Unnamed as they offer titles about pica, works in translation, and now GOOSE.

How did this pairing come to be? With the casual air that you might tell a girlfriend about your first date with a new potential lover, Hallman jumps right into it: “I was dawdling in bed one morning, scrolling through Tumblr on my phone because I didn’t want to go to work…” In her feed, she came across about “a new publishing house that focused on international fiction with unlikely protagonists and voices,” the seeming perfect match for her quirky, homeless manuscript. “A few days later, I worked up the courage to send them an email query,” she writes. “A few months later, I had a book contract.”

GOOSE’s official pub date was December 22—a great date if shoppers want to use it as a holiday present, or a death sentence if it’s one that gets lost in the whirlwind of year-end lists and upcoming books for next year. Since we put it on the tables, though, Hallman’s spunky debut has been the former; it was our number one best-selling title the week after Christmas.

Maybe it’s best to say it like this: When I ask Hallman about her favorite snacks—the Bashful Goose runs China, after all—she says, “I think my absolute favorite kinds of snacks are those that contain a combination of sweet and salty (best of both worlds!).” If GOOSE is the salt, Hallman is the sweetness. But not sweet like a macaron. Sweet like a raspberry, delicate but not without edge.