‘The Paper Menagerie’ by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu, 2011

The magic trick:

Leaning into extremes to create an emotional effect

Such a beautiful, powerful story today.

It won a bunch of awards – and it’s easy to see why.

Placing it in Connecticut week is almost mean. Certainly, Connecticut is the clear villain of the piece. And to be fair, there is nothing specific about Connecticut in the mean-spirited mainstream American culture that wreaks havoc on our young protagonist’s life here.

“The Paper Menagerie” leans into extremes to create its effect. In that way, you could perhaps accuse it of being somewhat cheap. But then you’d be missing the point entirely. The effect – that of bringing even the most callous of readers to the brink of tears – is the effect. Your quibble about the means is irrelevant.

In the story, we get two very specific and galling memories that set the stage for the narrator’s anger. He responds to the judgment and hate of the community by directing his hurt and rage at his mother.

This rage, we are to understand, basically lasted unabated for the next 15 years. This, you have to think, is a little bit unrealistic. Surely, at some point during the remainder of his childhood, this kid shared a tender or instructive moment with his mother. If he did, though, they do not show up in this telling of the story.

Straight lines and extremes.

It’s a very interesting cheat. And it is a cheat. By retaining the black-and-white nature of the mother-son relationship, we are able to reckon with the emotional weight of the regret at the end of the story that much more strongly. It’s a weight that hits like a ton of bricks.

And, I would argue that cheat brings us closer to the truth of human experience.

Whether there are moments of love and understanding along the way or not, overarching narratives (in this case, regret and remorse for the son) usually dominate. So the extreme often is the resulting truth – even if the exact timeline isn’t factually represented in the story.

The end is the end, regardless of the means.

And that’s quite a trick on Liu’s part.

The selection:

Mark punched me, hard. “This was very expensive! You can’t even find it in the stores now. It probably cost more than what your dad paid for your mom!”

I stumbled and fell to the floor. Laohu growled and leapt at Mark’s face.

Mark screamed, more out of fear and surprise than pain. Laohu was only made of paper, after all.

Mark grabbed Laohu and his snarl was choked off as Mark crumpled him in his hand and tore him in half. He balled up the two pieces of paper and threw them at me. “Here’s your stupid cheap Chinese garbage.”

After Mark left, I spent a long time trying, without success, to tape together the pieces, smooth out the paper, and follow the creases to refold Laohu. Slowly, the other animals came into the living room and gathered around us, me and the torn wrapping paper that used to be Laohu.

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