Set in a fantastical China where a variety of so-called beasts coexist with people, in an indeterminate era that evokes some sense of the past in the sense that the vocabulary chosen and style of writing is reminiscent of what one may find in translations of old texts (a deliberate choice), Strange Beasts of China starts off in a somewhat sterile fashion, detailing one type of beast per short chapter, as though a guidebook to a fantastical world that we have already been immersed into, the way that Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them is about the magical creatures in the world of Harry Potter, except we’re discovering this world as though through these reports of the beasts. And as the narrator becomes ever more enmeshed with the beasts she introduces, the narrative begins to take on a frenetic pace – the guidebook structure doesn’t crumble altogether, but becomes infused with its own life: what are the beasts, these Others, and who are the true beasts here? As the author mentions in an interview with the CBC, she was “making pretty straightforward metaphors about marginalized, underrepresented and oppressed groups”, and it’s not difficult to derive this from the text, but the change in pacing, in tone, as Strange Beasts tumbles along, half detective story/half guidebook, makes it difficult to tear yourself from the blurry and messy story of the beasts within the story, as the sterility of the guidebook entirely falls apart to reveal how fragile are what details we take to be the truths that constitute our world.
I’m not usually a great fan of short stories, and so I wasn’t too sure when I picked up Strange Beasts of China that I’d get into it, but the short stories are all interconnected, dropping clues for the reader – never enough for you to figure it out, I don’t think, but enough to make some guesses – such that you won’t be able to tear yourself from the story once it reveals itself.
Now, if your biking style is anything like Embley and Yewbert from The Epiplectic Bicycle, I don’t know whether to be envious of or worried for you. If we were looking at it as a regular story, I’d say that the two aforementioned are the two protagonists, but this is no regular book, so arguably, there are actually three protagonists – Embley, Yewbert, and the Epiplectic Bicycle – and the former two go on a trip using the latter, around… I’m not really sure around where, to be honest. Just around. (One might even say it’s not that the two take the third for a ride, so much as the bicycle takes Embley and Yewbert for a spin.) They go here and there, and (as Victoria pointed out to me) they explore so many things outside of the scope of this book that Gorey cuts out entire sections of their journey altogether, as you can see by the skipped chapters throughout. They even meet an alligator, who – on second thought, I won’t spoil it for you. The only way you can find out is if you take your bike around to try to meet that same alligator, or if you go and read The Epiplectic Bicycle!
So I was actually hoping to find music by Oren Lavie, but stumbled upon The Bear Who Wasn’t There instead, which I found kind of poetic: the Bear certainly wasn’t there in my mind as an option when I went on my virtual walk through the Fabulous Forest that is our Clean new Catalogue that has not relied on Cards for a very long time*.
Growing from an Itch (that I suppose materialized out of… Nowhere? Or There?), this Bear – a very happy, nice and handsome bear, if the note in the pocket that the Bear himself only just discovers he has is anything to go by – is on a mission to find himself. Is he a happy bear? a nice bear? a handsome bear? At least we know from the start that he is a Bear with a Pocket (and a Mission).
Along the way, we meet the curious and – as Alice might say – curiouser inhabitants of the Fabulous Forest (all delightfully alliterated with matching personalities to boot!): the Lazy Lizard lazes about on top of the Convenient Cow, couched in the grass; the Penultimate Penguin polices what the Bear is and is not allowed to think (because the Penguin himself has already taken Everything, not leaving even Nothing for the Bear); and the Turtle Taxi who taxes himself out going to and fro, thinking someone has called for a Taxi (and so the Bear, who we discover is nice, decides to call the Turtle Taxi in order to go somewhere that is apparently quite a popular destination: Forward).
Curiously, the Bear who wasn’t There is more There throughout the entire book than the Bird atop his head, only visible as an outline: is the Bird, who is never quite addressed or given a name, a figment of the Bear’s imagination, or is the Bird every bit as There as the Bear, who wasn’t, before he was?** The illustrations by Wolf Erlbruch are an absolute joy: the clumsy – shall I say, burly? – figure of the Bear chimes perfectly with the narration and his character, and the lush Forest is every bit as Fabulous as advertised. This meander through the Wonderful Woods that are the Fabulous Forest with the Bear who wasn’t There (although he is, now!) is a charming adventure in the Slippery beast that is Semantics, which I now heartily and wholeheartedly recommend to adults and children alike!