STRANGE BEASTS OF CHINA
By Yan Ge
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
The word “cryptozoology” has an aura of scientific rigor, evoking decoded gene sequences and immaculately preserved fossils. In practice, though, it’s a pseudoscience focused on human myths. To reach the Minotaur — be it Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster — the cryptozoologist navigates a labyrinth of hearsay, conjecture and hallucination. The journey is inevitably inward; the Minotaur is always us.
Yan Ge’s novel “Strange Beasts of China” embraces cryptozoology’s ethos of self-delusion and adventure, staging the fictional Chinese city of Yong’an as a hub of evasive creatures simply called “beasts.” These live alongside humans in seemingly infinite arrangements, blending in yet leading distinct lives. Some have peculiar, restricted diets (“honey, rice wine, eggs and cauliflower”); some are shape-shifters; and others are immortal. All are categorized via an adjective (“flourishing beast,” “thousand league beast”) rather than by an ethnic identity or name, a scheme that heightens their elusiveness. Fixtures and legends alike, beasts seem both to overrun Yong’an and to leave no visible footprints, an ambient absence.
Published in China in 2006 and now translated by Jeremy Tiang, “Strange Beasts” is Yan’s second novel, predating the raunchy, delirious “The Chilli Bean Paste Clan.” Readers of the latter — her fifth novel but first to be translated into English — will note a stark difference in style. Yan has characterized her early novels as “obsessed with structure,” a charge that certainly applies here. She has arranged the book as a bestiary, each chapter focusing on a particular beast or community and the unnamed narrator’s encounter with it.
The narrator, a cryptozoologist, author and newspaper columnist with a fondness for cigarettes, booze and high jinks, is the book’s strength. Her wry, melancholy voice and bottomless curiosity imbue it with wonder and rumination. Nominally, she’s a descendant of the weary private eye of noir fiction, slinking through her sprawling, weird city with a mix of awe and dread. But compared with her wisecracking loner ancestors she is decidedly of the world she observes, less a guide or an outcast than a denizen — a fish in the water, mulling the changing currents.
The atmosphere of “Strange Beasts of China” is delightful. Through the narrator’s futile quest to catalog beasts, Yan captures the fluidness of city life, the way urban space defies definition even for people hellbent on making sense of it. There’s no bedrock to Yong’an’s riddles, so the narrator is constantly revising her understanding of the beasts and herself. Human and beast exist in constant flux, clashing, merging and splintering with tectonic regularity.
Regrettably, the book does not build on that friction. By hewing so closely to the taxonomic framework of the bestiary and treating each chapter as a distinct case study, Yan introduces repetitive narrative beats, such as the narrator going to her favorite bar to chase leads or calling her former zoology professor for advice. These repetitions probably wouldn’t stand out in a story collection, but in a novel they are redundant; the narrator seems to reset every chapter. The book’s symmetrical structure also highlights the lack of interactions among the different beast communities, which are hermetically sealed off from one another despite frequent mentions of their ubiquity. Yan invokes the creatures’ strangeness without probing their existence; we are rarely privy to beasts’ perspectives on themselves, their fellow beasts or humanity. Although Yong’an brims with mood and mystique, it lacks culture.
At the end of the novel, the narrator declares the city’s blankness a virtue. “This vast city, the beasts that come and go, all of this, is a secret,” she says. It’s an odd conclusion to a saga of decryption, but it fits the book’s commitment to posing questions rather than resolving them. Some mirages are meant to endure.