March 4, 2020: “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

Greetings from Missouri, Story366!

This is Day 2 of No-AWP, and right now, Moon City Press‘s offsite reading would have just started. Last year, our Portland reading was my absolute favorite part of the conference, our authors so awesome to hear read, to hang out with. I love the book fair and meeting so many people there, but that reading event was particularly special. Makes me sad that right now, I thought we’d be in the bar, enjoying our writers, hearing them read, having some drinks, and just spreading the good word about the press to anyone who happened by.

Somehow, even though I wasn’t even supposed to be here today, I found myself incredibly busy at the office. Really, I should have been able to sleep in, watch Netflix, and eat takeout in my pajamas all day with zero consequences. Stupid me told my students I was in town and stupider me said I’d go to class, hold advising appointments, and be there for my office hours. On top of that, I got to work on shipping books, which I had planned for next week, but decided to get started on, anyway—Pablo Piñero Stillmann still hasn’t seen his book, Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks, due to debut in San Antonio, so I made sure I got him his copies. I guess it’s just my personality to not lie still, to give it a rest. Instead, I had to accomplish something. Idiot!

One thing I was going to have to find time for at AWP was this blog—every day. I managed in 2016 by picking a lot of short-short collections, and that was my plan for this week, to read a lot of shorts. Now, though, I get to read and post as normal. For today, I chose Ken Liu‘s The Paper Menagerie, out in 2016 from Saga Press, which, from what I can tell, is the sci-fi/fantasy imprint of Simon & Schuster (which, coincidentally, was put up for sale today). This is a book I’ve known about for a while, and heck, could have covered in 2016. But again, Story366 makes up for a lot of past wrongs, so here we go.

As implied, Liu’s book could easily be categorized under the general sci-fi umbrella, as the lot of stories I read tonight certainly felt speculative, or perhaps fabulist, if not whatever description that’s probably more apt that I haven’t heard about yet. In any case, they’re all pretty great stories. I stared with the opener, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.” This story, not at all about illegal gambling at a zoo, is about actual books—you know, the kind this blog covers—and how every intergalactic species has one thing in common: They make books. The story then lists five or six alien races and describes how they uniquely construct their reading material, be it with their noses or out of pure energy. “State Change” is about a woman who needs to stay close to a freezer, or at least some ice, lest her soul escape from her body. “Simulacrum” is a dual account of a father and a daughter who part ways after the dad invents a way to make movies and photos come to life (mostly so people can reenact sex with them). I like all three of these pieces, especially “Simulacrum,” all of them venturing into sci-fi, or maybe magical realism. All of them also take some sort of chance, employing unique voices, a variety of character perspectives, and some structural tricks, like an excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay; or diaries; or a long letter. Liu isn’t afraid to break convention, though he never feels experimental: He’s just writing good stories.

I’m writing in detail about the title story, however, as I like it most of all—heck, it almost made me cry. “The Paper Menagerie” is about this kid, the son of an American white dude and his Chinese mail-order bride. When the protagonist/narrator has a crying fit to start the story, Mom takes some old Christmas wrapping paper and fashions him a tiger out of it, some pretty elaborate origami. That’s great in itself, but the real trick is when she blows inside the tiger, Laohu, inflating it and bringing it to life. Laohu becomes a friend and companion to the narrator, and is soon joined by the titular menagerie, all kinds of tiny paper animals that roam the house, the narrator’s own miniscule zoo. There’s even a tinfoil shark that lives in a fishbowl.

Our hero lives happily with his friends, these animals, until he has a kid from school over to play. The kid has Obi Wan Kenobi action figure that spouts Jediisms in a tinny voice, making our narrator introduce this kid to his own talking toys, the paper menagerie. The kid is more jealous and dickish about it than amazed and awestruck (that’s magical realism for you). When Laohu bites the head off his Obi Wan, the kid tears Laohu in half and balls him up, essentially killing the little tiger. There’s also some racial epitets thrown around, and the kid even points out that his Obi Wan probably cost more than our narrator’s mom (which I guess he knew about).

What this does is send our narrator, and the whole family, into an anti-Chinese spiral, our guy suddenly ashamed of having his mother’s eyes and hair. The dad—remember, he’s the kind of guy who buys a woman through the mail—is quick to denounce all the Chinese customs in the household, including the food, the clothing, and most of all, the language; it’s not long before our narrator goes from a biracial, bilingual kid to a kid who’s trying to be American and hide his other half.

Worst of all, the kid takes the rest of his paper menagerie, this living set of toys, his friends and companions, and puts them in a shoebox under his bed. When they growl and roar him awake all night, he tapes the box shut and hides it in the highest corner of the attic, sort of the final piece of his heritage cast off, locked away and forgotten.

The story then flashes forward to the narrator’s college years and the tragic illness of his mother. She has cancer, bringing our guy home from school to see her in her final moments. She doesn’t even have the energy to say everything she wants to say to him, not that he’s interested in listening: Eliminating his Chinese heritage has also meant eliminating his loving Chinese mother, the two having grown apart since the Obi Wan incident. He leaves the hospital after a short visit, returning across the country to school, and she dies while he’s on his flight.

The story goes on quite a bit after that, taking a new shape and direction, but I don’t want to reveal any more of it here. I mentioned earlier that this story almost made me cry, and if the sadness I just described doesn’t get you, the rest of this story probably would. I love this story so much, I want you to go out and read it now, just to see what happens, how beautifully and perfectly Liu ends his tale.

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu is a really fantastic book, one I highly recommnend. It’s a big book, too, massive for a story collection at well over three hundred pages. A lot of that is a novella that’s placed near the end, and while I rarely get into a collection’s novella—for time’s sake—I really want to see what Liu does with more space, all the stories I read on the short end. Liu’s got me really intrigued. You know, I was kinda sad when I started this post, as all this has coincided with our cancelled reading time, but Liu’s book took me out of that, held me in its pages—even when I moved on to a new story—infecting me with vivid dream after vivid, wonderful dream.


3 thoughts on “March 4, 2020: “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

  1. arvindsh

    I recently finished this book and as is my wont, looked up other recent reviews to share in the “after-emotions”. I enjoyed you review. Thanks. I’m following the blog now (via diff account for my follows)
    I recently started blogging and penned this review:
    I’d be grateful if you gave it a read; delighted with a comment (constructive is fine) and ecstatic with a follow back 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: June 16, 2020: “Alien Virus Love Disaster” by Abbey Mei Otis – Story366

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