The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

You could learn something from the cover of The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li. At least I did with the benefit of hindsight. One goose lifts up its head, as if trying to reach the depicted orange sun. That would be Fabienne, alpha woman, trying to find an outlet, a connectivity for the chaos engendered by her dancing star, her talent. If she’s sadistic at times, adept at torturing small animals or playing cruel tricks on humans and laughing at their discomfort, maybe it’s her failure to find a creative outlet that’s the cause. I don’t think she’s evil; I think she’s inept…and desperately unlucky, living as she does in the boondocks of France, in the no-account village of Saint Rémy.

This novel takes place in the 1950’s, but I know that in 19th century France, par example, most of the country was more like Saint Rémy than like Paris. Paris gets all the play, but the reality of most of France was rural, small townish and provincial. The sort of place that Madame Bovary (another novel!) would die trying to escape from.

The second goose would be Agnes, the beta. Recessive, we only see a head and part of a neck trying to squeeze into the frame of the cover. The pattern of her life trying to pattern the glorious arching neck of her leadership friend, Fabienne. Yes, that’s a good idea: let’s aspire to the sun.

In a striking description, Agnes is described as trying to become Fabienne. Agnes, out of love and devotion to her friend, becomes Fabienne’s mirror. And Fabienne loves that mirror. That’s why Agnes is her only friend. Fabienne seems to give the impression that she’d like to kill everyone else, or at least torture everyone else. No one in Saint Rémy loves, or even likes Fabienne. Agnes is considered nice, if she’s considered at all.

There’s a wonderful distinction in The Book of Goose between game-real and the fearsome reality of the world. “Game-real” is when your gameplay is so intense it feels real. Only it isn’t. Only the changing world is real, and in this novel, it eats up people alive.

No surprise, it’s Fabienne who invents the games for her and Agnes to fight off the real world. Fabienne’s master game is the book-writing game. Fabienne will tell devoted Agnes what to write down, and Agnes will compile a book and impersonate the author.

The book-writing game takes off, when the book, a sadistic gem called Les Enfants Heureux (The Happy Children) is brought to the attention of a Paris publisher. It’s accepted for publication. Agnes, impersonating a child prodigy writer, becomes the toast of Paris and London, at least while the buzz lasts. Agnes is sent to an elite prep school, Woodsway, outside London to be “finished”, and finished she is.

One game-playing master stroke occurs when Fabienne creates a boyfriend, “Jacques” to correspond with Agnes in prep school. Jacques is Fabienne in a new persona. So Fabienne writes letters to Agnes as Fabienne and also as Jacques.

It’s sublime when the ultra-officious headmistress of the school, Mrs. Townsend (who prefers, pricelessly,  to be called “Kazumi” because she had lived in Japan once) insists that Agnes give her “boyfriend” up. Agnes slyly agrees, but Fabienne includes letters from Jacques in with her letters to Agnes.

Agnes finds she can be more candid in her letters to “Jacques” than to Fabienne. And Jacques is more emotional and melancholy than Fabienne. Is Agnes in love with Jacques who is really Fabienne, who Agnes knows, of course, is really Fabienne? This is crazy gameplay, and the gender relationships get divinely hazy. If this is decadence, then let’s have more of it.

I said at the beginning of this review that you could learn something from the cover of The Book of Goose. One other thing I learned from reading this book is that I regret not having read every other book that Yiyun Li has written.