The Paper Menagerie

origami tiger for the paper menagerie

Ken Liu

Many short stories end with a twist, or a change in perspective which invites reconsideration of the story that has just been read. In Ken Liu’s story this takes the form of the mother’s lengthy letter. Though it is in itself worded clearly and dispassionately, the letter creates a very moving final stage as Jack is made to revaluate his life and his relationship with his mother.

Magical Realism

Liu blends the vocabulary and style of realism with fantasy, a genre known as magical realism. On the one hand there is the reality of life in Connecticut, with neighbours, school and ‘Star Wars action figures’; on the other hand we have origami animal figures which ‘pounced’, ‘growled’ and ‘vibrated’. An important feature of the genre is that the story never acknowledges the elements of fantasy – they are narrated in exactly the same way as the rest of the story so that they appear as true. Liu also adds other details to make this magical truth persuasive, like ‘the capillary action’ which ‘pulled the dark liquid high up into’ the legs of the water buffalo which ‘jumped into a dish of soy sauce on the table at dinner.’ The magical paper animal is juxtaposed with the ordinariness of dinner, while the soy sauce gives the cultural background of the story.

Mother’s Magic Origami

There are other quick switches in the story, notably of chronology. In this way, Liu encourages the reader to make comparisons between Jack’s different attitudes and behaviours at various points. Importantly, the story starts with the creation of ‘magic’, a word the narrator uses himself about his mother. The first appearance of Laohu, the origami tiger, associates him with comfort, reassurance and love as his mother makes the animal to ease her son from a fit of childhood ‘sobbing’. Her skills are first emphasised by the precision of the verbs which Liu uses: ‘pleated, packed, tucked, rolled and twisted’. She blows into the flattened animal in order to inflate it and it is this which breathes life into it – as the narrator says, ‘This was her magic.’

In a lurching transition, this phrase is immediately followed in the next paragraph with ‘Dad had picked Mom out of a catalog.’ The change is uncomfortably jarring and Liu also moves the reader forwards in time, from one of Jack’s ‘earliest memories’ to ‘One time, when I was in high school’. There is also an unexplained change in the relationship between mother and son, as the father is ‘trying to get me to speak to Mom again.’ Coming immediately after the magical creation of Laohu, this seems heartless and shocking.

Contempt for the Catalogue

Jack narrates the story of his parents’ meeting as a sequence of short, factual paragraphs, as if he is refusing to get involved in the story. His own perception of it is highlighted with italics, questioning ‘What kind of woman’ his mother is, acknowledging the ‘Contempt’ which he feels. The reader is conscious that the answer to his question is the kind of woman who makes him living origami creatures with ‘her magic’.

Liu emphasises this by taking the reader immediately back into Jack’s earlier years and his mother’s creation of ‘a goat, a deer, and a water buffalo’ and two different sharks, the second out of ‘tinfoil’ that swims ‘happily in a large goldfish bowl.’ Every detail of the animals, their activities and Jack’s mother’s repairs and adaptations demonstrates her maternal love. That love is as living as the magical origami animals, which ‘got into trouble’, ‘liked to pounce’, ‘whimpered and winced’ – many of these verbs could be applied appropriately to a young boy. In this way Liu forges a close association between Jack and the paper animals his mother has created for him. This connection is made very clear when Laohu and he ‘watch the tinfoil shark’ in the goldfish bowl and their eyes mirror each other across the bowl – ‘I saw his eyes, magnified to the size of coffee cups, staring at me’. Laohu, Jack and his mother share a world of the imagination.

Effects of Racism

That idyllic childhood world crumbles when it comes into contact with different values and casual racism. Liu establishes the racial prejudices of the American neighbours in a few lines of dialogue, where they comment about Jack that ‘mixing never seems right’, that he ‘looks unfinished’ and that he has ‘Slanty eyes’. They even refer to him as a ‘little monster.’ Though it is a first person narrative, Liu chooses not to indicate Jack’s reaction to these comments; the dialogue sits baldly within the narrative to allow the reader to feel their own shock. This is the first stage of Jack’s alienation from his mother’s ‘Chinesey’ culture.

The second is the encounter with Mark, another boy from the neighbourhood and school. The narration clearly suggests how underwhelmed Jack is by Mark’s Obi-Wan Kenobi plastic figure. It is able to ‘swing his arms’ and has a ‘tinny voice’; implicitly the reader is encouraged to compare this with the liveliness of the descriptions of the antics of the origami figures. After the irritatingly dull ‘five’ time repetition of the Star Wars ‘performance’, it is not surprising that Jack asks ‘Can he do anything else?’ There is no ‘purring’, ‘growling’ or ‘chasing’ here.

Obi-Wan versus Laohu

The fight between the two toys is symbolic of the clash between the two cultures. Jack sees Laohu through Mark’s eyes – ‘very worn, patched all over with tape and glue’ – and despite Laohu’s approach to Mark, he is dismissed as ‘trash’ and ‘garbage’. But despite the flashing ‘lightsaber’, plastic Obi-Wan Kenobi is no match for the vibrant movement of the paper tiger, who ‘turned and pounced’. The vigour of those verbs is matched by ‘growled and leapt’ as Laohu defends Jack after he is punched, but the tiger is ‘only made of paper, after all’, and Mark reduces him to the ‘garbage’ he considers him to be – ‘crumpled’, ‘tore’ and balled’ are the verbs which show Mark’s violent disrespect. The two toys represent two different imaginations, two different cultural backgrounds. In the clash, both are found wanting and both are damaged.

However, the damage is wider than the toys. Jack and his family are living in the USA and Liu shows how the fight with Mark is a catalyst for Jack’s rejection of his Chinese heritage. He ‘pushed… away’ his Chinese food and stridently demands that his mother speak English. Tellingly, Dad buys Jack ‘a full set of Star Wars action figures’ and ‘the paper menagerie’ is packed away ‘in a large shoe box’. America has replaced China as Jack’s value set.

The Hardening of the Heart

Mom makes a moving discrimination between the English word ‘love’, which is only a word, and the Chinese ‘ai’, which she feels in her heart. That love is apparent in her continuing to create new origami animals for Jack, despite his growing separation from her. She tries to adapt, but Jack’s scorn is apparent in his choice of adjectives for her: ‘exaggerated, uncertain, ridiculous, graceless’. Just as he ‘squeezed’ the new animals ’until the air went out of them’, Jack squeezes the life out of his relationship with his mother. He mentally pushes her as far away as possible: ‘We had nothing in common. She might as well be from the moon.’ In the unflinching honesty of the narration, the reader recognises Jack’s lack of self-knowledge, his lack of comprehension and his lack of love.

Liu makes another sudden place and time shift to ‘Mom lying in her hospital bed’, but the emotional distance remains. Jack’s narrative seems more concerned with ‘interview schedules’ than his mother’s illness and is ‘already thinking about the flight back’. His mother’s dialogue shows her selflessness, telling him ‘to go back to school’, to ‘do well’ and not to ‘worry about me’. As she tells him with some urgency about Qingming and the box of animals, the reader recognises an indication of significance, but Jack does not, fobbing her off: ‘Just rest, Mom.’

Epiphany

The next time shift takes the reader to some point after mother’s death and it is a new character, Jack’s girlfriend Susan, who begins the revaluation of his mother, recognising from the box of paper animals that she ‘was an amazing artist.’ The key moment, though, is the transformation of the ‘ball of wrapping paper and torn tape’ into Laohu and in a parallel with the ninth paragraph of the story, Jack again ‘laughed’ as he was ‘stroking his back’ and we have a return to the mood of the story’s beginning. It is Qingming and Laohu unfolds into his mother’s letter. This is the focus of his mother’s final words in the hospital.

It is significant and poignant that Jack is so detached from his Chinese heritage that he cannot read the letter and relies on a stranger to translate it for him. The letter is his epiphany; it recounts the arduousness of his mother’s life, the effects of the Cultural Revolution, her journey to the catalogue. Finally, we have mother’s own story, in her own narration, and fully understand her sense of loss of her family, her hope in her son and then the loss of those hopes: ‘I felt I was losing everything all over again.

It is a devastating conclusion, but Liu ends with a note of hope, though too late for mother, as Jack walks home with Laohu ‘cradled… in the crook of my arm’.

 

Narrative methods to consider:
  • First person narration
  • Magical realism
  • Structure
  • Time shifts
  • Letter format
  • Change of perspective
  • Epiphany