Do you feel that chill in the air? Are your social feeds completely overloaded with tone-deaf images of thin white women in oversized sweaters clutching mugs of tea in both hands with an open book in front of them? Is every food brand adding cinnamon and nutmeg to stuff that was honestly just fine before? That’s right, y’all, it is officially autumnal on the internet, which means archetypal “cozy” imagery is mashed up with the onslaught of terrifying news and profound existential dread producing an uncanny, I might even say maddening effect as we live our lives in the virtual realm. If you share in my experience of internet-induced anxiety right now, perhaps you would like to join me for the second installment of Repeller’s Book Club, in which we will read a bomb-ass novel over the course of six-ish weeks, with activities and themes to contemplate and cool readers to talk to about non-pumpkin spice-related topics, culminating in a virtual meetup in which me and the author play games, you get to ask your q’s and get some A’s, and other stuff I haven’t dreamed up yet but am currently percolating!
If you’re convinced, step one is to get the book! This month we’re reading Bestiary by K-Ming Chang.
In Chang’s debut novel, three generations of women, Grandmother, Mother, and Daughter, live at the center of a multigenerational, transnational story of family, memory, and desire. The novel itself is mostly narrated by Daughter, and is, in the most reductive sense, about her family, which immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan and now carves a life out of the margins in California. The novel weaves myths from Taiwan into the narrative of her family’s past, and into her lived experience in the present. We learn early on that in this novel, no single life is an island, and all bodies are permeable. Daughter lives in her own body as one presence among the many competing forces, including Hu Gu Po, a tiger spirit that wants to live inside a woman’s body. Daughter’s evolving sense of self is tied to the hopeful, gorgeous queer love story that begins when a girl named Ben spits a plum pit at Daughter’s feet, and a new thirst, for intimacy, for revelation, emerges in her body.
These are the bones of the novel. However, the story’s breath and blood is made of Chang’s totally unique language. Chang offers us language at its most ecstatic, its most lyric, the whole world of the novel populated by impossible images and sensations that feel like the kind of truth I need right now, a truth that exceeds the literal without sacrificing its integrity. Right now, I crave the kind of truth that is not concerned with rendering the things of this world as they are right now, but instead is concerned with shaping beasts and heroes and heroic beasts out of the shadows that form in the silences of our lives—the silences of traumatic history, of queer desire, of diaspora and immigration and the particular form of violence and intimacy that passes from one generation of women who survived the unspeakable to the next generation of women who must live with the gravity of their history.
Bestiary has been described as magical realism, a style in which the fantastical lives within a world recognizable to those of us stranded in the drab, predictable landscape of reality. I’ve always thought that this description misses the mark when it attempts to describe novels like Bestiary, in which the supernatural elements do not feel like they’re pulled from the thin air of artistic license or a fable-weighted imagination. Magical realism as it appears in this novel, and in the great examples of the style, is not a simple injection of fantasy into real life, but instead is the transformation of erased, abject, forgotten things into characters and phenomena that refuse to be buried, that insist on their place in the world.
I chose this novel for us because, right now, I crave stories that do not try to confine the wilderness of our lived experience to tight linear arcs. I crave stories that are expansive, ferocious, elegantly feral. I want to read stories that do not attempt to tame the world, but instead lead us further out into whatever lies beyond this.
You can order the book from Bookshop.org and get started on this month’s Book Club expedition right now. If you can’t afford a book right now, keep an eye on our Instagram—we’ve got something special coming for you.
If you’ve been here before (the virtual Repeller Book Club secret tree-fort clubhouse), then you know that this is not just any book club. I don’t care if you finish the book on time you’re not expected to show up to the meetup with a concise analysis of the major themes in the book and questions about the protagonists motivations. We’re here to connect, to reflect, to shift our perspective, and to expand our lives creatively. This mission (obviously) requires grand whimsy, mysteries, activities, and experiments. So here is this month’s experiment to get you out of the daily drudge and into a sweet moment of wonder.
Experiment #1: Cloud Watching
Do you remember laying in the grass or on a blacktop or on a park bench as a kid and watching the clouds form themselves into animals and monsters and faces as they moved across the sky? When is the last time you went cloud watching? Can you even remember?
Well, the next time someone asks you that, you will have an answer. Go outside—the beginnings of autumn are ideal for cloud watching. Find somewhere to recline where you can see the sky.
Next, set a timer for ten minutes. For these ten minutes (longer if you are an advanced daydreamer) do nothing but watch the clouds move and the creatures emerge. This is the start of your own bestiary. Let your mind wander and freely associate the billows and streaks into creatures or scenes. You don’t have to be able to explain why that nimbus cloud definitely looks like a shrimp or that cirrus is the Nile.
When the timer goes off, or when you see a cloud creature that is too good to miss, take a picture. Post that picture on social media with a description of what you see and tag Repeller and use our #RepellerBookClub hashtag. At which point, you will receive instructions for the next experiment.
Graphic by Lorenza Centi.