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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lily Hoang's CHANGING

I love this novel. Yes, I like this book and I am impressed by it, but more importantly, I love it.

Let me explain: this book is unique, touching, intimate. It almost feels autobiographical, but it is not. On page after page Hoang's riffs on Jack and Jill and other nursery rhymes, on romantic relationships, on cruelty and tenderness, on family, feel so intimate that to not love them would seem inhumane.

Changing, a 2009 Pen America Award Winner, is based on the ancient Chinese uber-text I-Ching or Book of Changes. The book is composed of 64 hexagrams, each one with six stacked horizontal lines. Some lines are composed of just one dash (­—) an­d some are two (--). The unbroken lines are associated with yang, the creative principle, and the broken with yin, the receptive principle.

For our purposes, it is enough to know that these 64 hexagrams refer to combinations of concrete natural phenomena; namely earth, mountain, water, wind, thunder, fire, swamp, and heaven. For each hexagram, the first three lines refer to one of these phenomena and the second three refer to another. (This is how we get the number 64; there are 64 such possible combinations.) Water, as an example, is composed of a broken line followed by a solid line and another broken line, respectively.

To use the I-Ching for divination, you ask a question then randomly pick a number. Studying that hexagram should help you understand your question better. In an appendix at the end of the book, Lily says that she wants the book to be read that way. For all practical purposes, we can assume that the book need not be read sequentially.

Hoang's book is a new translation of the I-Ching. And it works by, for each hexagram, riffing off of its implications for two pages. (i.e. Each chapter is two pages.) A chapter is divided into six blocks of text, three on one page and three on the other. Some of these blocks are broken into two columns and others are completely solid. They correspond to the broken or solid lines in the hexagrams.

To see what Lily does with three hexagrams, go here. Note that there are six text blocks under each hexagram, and that in the book a page break takes place between the third and the fourth ones. Since it is easilly accessible on the net, I will use this excerpt as an example of what happens throughout the book. I will concentrate on the first one, "Obstruction."

The most direct discussion of the hexagram itself is in the text block that begins "This hexagram is not..." Since heaven is the ultimate creative force (with its three solid lines) and earth the ultimate receptive one (with its three broken lines), it would seem that this hexagram would be water. But it is not: it is obstruction or barricade. Hoang imagines the Princess Jill living in a castle behind a moat. Where did this come from? Throughout the book, in every discussion of a hexagram, Lily goes into Jack and Jill at one point. What's more, other nursery rhymes and fairy tales are quoted. So here, Jill is a princess, evoking all sorts of other tales. This quoting while riffing is very similar to what many jazz artists do, who, while soloing, "quote" the melodies of other songs as a playful and generative act.

This riffing and quoting occurs throughout this excerpt and throughout the book. Each chapter is composed of more than six riffs on the title coming from different imagist, allegorical, and conceptual frameworks. For an example of an allegory, look at the text block beginning "That us lovers..." The whole piece is about the narrator's inability to play chess well and, by implication, the lover's "clean" ability. This is an allegory about the narrator's difficulty with bringing intense emotional scenes (what else could the chess game suggest other than arguments, stressful decisions, an inability to be decisive?) to a conclusion. Perhaps they tend to fester.

Other text blocks under this hexagram are equally interesting. If we remember that with the bottom three lines we are dealing with ultimate receptivity, the block beginning "Impossible for the great..." becomes fascinating. It is a paean to the Taoist idea that the insignificant and nonfunctional (the traditional example is of a severely bent tree) will not be hurt. Here we see how crafty and impossible to catch are the small ones. The very nature of ultimate receptivity implies a strength, an ability to take powerful pressure and yet still remain. The total obstruction of the receptive is impossible (and this is also in keeping with the Yin Yang philosophy) no matter how hard anyone tries.

In the long text block beginning "Memory of the city..." Lily works the notion of water and rain as obstruction once again. Using conjunctions, repetition, and agrammatical structures she causes us to plunge down the text block like heavy rainwater. And it ends with the rye comment "before we're real stuck." The playfulness in this section is quite typical. There is a bouyancy to this novel in spite of its many tragic elements: cancer, growing old, homophobia, racism, breaking from family, and so on.

The playfulness, perhaps, comes from the the conception or intuition that animates the novel, the use of the I-Ching— coupled with the wildly free, agrammatical style. What's more, the play seems inexhaustible. Each chapter could be discussed for hours in terms of how Lily is riffing off of the hexagram. In the sections of the hexagram "Obstruction," she deals with memory, fear, sadness, definitions, Heaven, Earth, small vs. great, family, translating, allegory, and housing. All in two pages!

What's more, this intricately textured novel is not dense. There is so much room to breathe, so much tenderness — the mother lying next to a sick little girl and asking her to give the illness to the mother, and the little girl not wanting to get her mother sick; lovers hearing "how sounds move in groups to our ears"; & Jill walking "into a forest & there she sang with rabbits & birds & a very charming prince overheard melody. And there is tremendous pain — cancer and chemotherapy, racist comments aimed at the little girl and her parents, love affairs breaking apart, a young man almost completely rejected by his family because of being a homosexual. Each of these, returned to again and again under different hexagrams, causes us to read each text block in at least two ways: one in relation to the hexagram it is under, and the other to the other text blocks under different hexagrams that deal with the same issue.

I love this novel because of its tenderness, its playfulness, its ability to look at some of the most horrible aspects of experience yet not despair. To read this novel and inhabit its world is to feel that almost anything can happen, and it might be horrible. It also might be beautiful. But in that very randomness is the possibility for a a spaciousness and openness that is the source of endurance, perseverance, play, and good fortune.

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