Jack Isn’t Always Jack: Lily Hoang’s Changing

I don’t know Lily Hoang’s precise age: it changes. She is among an emergent vanguard of young(ish) innovative writers to whom the crumbling mainstream publishing industry is largely indifferent. The feeling is almost certainly mutual.

And maybe now, with three books published, an anthology co-edited with Blake Butler forthcoming from Starcherone Press, and a collection of collaborative stories in the works, Hoang has switched over into being more established than emerging. (Full disclosure: I have a story in the anthology mentioned above and know Hoang only very slightly.) If not “established”, certainly “award-winning”, in point of fact. Her first book, Parabola, won Chiasmus Press’s Undoing the Novel contest; Changing won a 2009 PEN/Beyond Margins Award. Both books are sui generis, stunning in their formal innovation. (I hesitate to call either of the works novels, as they defy generic categorization.)

I start off with Hoang’s youth as a cheap rhetorical strategy — only to contrast it with the age of her text. Hoang is a young writer; Changing is an old book.

Changing retranslates the “I Ching” (generally translated as the “Book of Changes”), a Chinese divination text that can be traced as far back as the Fourth Century B.C., and likely existed before that. To tackle such an ancient and culturally significant text is in itself bold; and is only part of what Hoang is up to.

In Changing, Hoang translates her life into the “I Ching”, and vice versa, telling her reader’s fortune by narrating her own. The “I Ching” is changed: transformed into a linguistic organism that is highly idiosyncratic while retaining the source text’s enigmatic force and capacity for interpretive proliferation. In its unusual form the narrative works multivalently, functioning as novel, memoir, prophecy, and fairy tale as much as it functions as an (albeit loose) English-language translation of a Chinese text.

Visually structured after the “I Ching”, Changing’s 64 chapters correspond to the source text’s 64 hexagrams. Hoang’s translation interprets the hexagram — traditionally six stacked horizontal lines that are either broken (Yin) or unbroken (Yang) — as six discrete text blocks, some of which are broken into two columns.

Some of these text blocks are directive, instructing the reader in how to read; others, similarly meta, deal with the process of translation; some take up the story of Mother and Father and their immigration to Houston; others of Brother, or of Sister, both of whom are dealing with personal crises; others of little girl (the child version of the narrator); and arguably the most central thread follows with searing honesty the story of the narrator’s romantic relationship, her lover being one of two “you”s in the book (the other “you” is the reader).

Meanwhile, yet another thread involves retelling Western fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, Jack and Jill — with important changes. These different tales are sometimes merged, Jack and Jill becoming Hansel and Gretel, Jill showing up again later as a girl who lives with the woman who lives in the shoe. Often these tales are deployed to demonstrate issues of gender and power that run through the other threads. Always, they show the narrator appropriating and revising familiar stories as she makes sense of them for her own experience.

For example, the first hexagram, titled “Creation”, declares, “this is a story about Jack & Jill & let me be clear without confusion that it’s true that Jack & Jill went up the hill but Jack isn’t always Jack & Jill isn’t always Jill & I am not always me & you lover are not always you”. Here the narrator inserts her story into another age-old text, as she does with the “I Ching” more broadly. In this way Changing becomes a kind of narrative machine, inter and intratextual, folding in and proliferating stories and prophecies and tales, all working tirelessly to manufacture meaning that will never be easy or clear or relatable.

Note the omission of commas and the use of polysyndeton (repetition of conjunctions) in the excerpt above: these rhetorical devices run not only through this short passage but through the book as a whole, the rhythm working to create a tone that manages both quietness and urgency.

In keeping with the nature of the source text, Changing can be read as an oracle. A page at the back of the book presents a cut-out, fold-up cup, and a cut-out grid of 64 tiny squares. In her “Letter of Introduction and Instruction”, slyly placed at the back of the book, Hoang instructs the reader in reading:

This can be read any way you want, but I dream of you friend standing & thinking your questions needing resolve & I dream of you extending your arm into the cup & removing a sheath of paper & this is what you read & this is all you read until your next question.

Of course the book can be read front to back; or it can be read each chapter bottom up, as the “I Ching”’s hexagrams are properly read. While Hoang’s narrator instructs us to read in this latter way, she knows us better than this, and comments wisely throughout the text on how we have “forgotten instructions & unable to remove old ways of reading & I needing to remind you again to read bottom up & hopefully incapable of remembering this time because up to down is so much easier”.

This kind of opening up of the reading experience, allowing us multiple paths to follow, fits well with the overarching theme of the book, which insists on change, on evolution, on multiplicity of meaning, but also on repetition and the shaky determinism of destiny. Changing proposes story as divination, divination as story: there is a tension here, a moving back and forth between what has happened, what will happen, what must have happened, what must happen. In Changing, we are made to reckon with that vexing struggle between possibility and fate.