A Bestiary is not the kind of essay that possesses a thesis. Instead, Hoang gives the reader a taste of what’s to come:
“To prove our renowned endurance of pain, Vietnamese women adorn their wrists with jade bracelets. In order to get the damn thing on, one must distort the hand, almost breaking it. I have yellow bruises for days, and yet: this is proof of our delicacy: how well we take that agony and internalize it. The tighter the fit, the more suffering the woman perseveres, the more beautiful she is considered.”
Hoang takes us through a delicately intricate – interconnected – web of anecdotes, ruminations, and memories. None of them feel particularly integral to the workings of the narrative, and yet, by the end of the essay, Hoang has introduced us to a landscape of pain – or, rather, a body of it: rippling, untouchable.
Whether physical, mental, emotional, relational, or even cultural, A Bestiary categorizes each and every instance of suffering in the author’s life, crafting a narrative in which even the external becomes self-inflicted. No dimension is isolated. No dimension is left untouched. With time, the truth unspools, clear as a sharp break: Hoang is drawn to pain, just as pain is drawn to Hoang. It is this reciprocity that characterizes the essay – a magnetic draw; an impulse she is unable to ignore, and unable to shake.”
Perhaps one of the most striking incidences of Hoang’s self-infliction lies in her relationships – in particular, her romantic relationships. Throughout the course of the essay, she describes two of her most recent relationships: one, with Chris, her ex-husband; the other, with Harold, her lover of several years. Hoang relates several anecdotes – glimpses of a life once lived; a wretched, breathless thing, evidence of the author’s suffering.
Early in the narrative, Hoang describes the first time she met Chris’ parents. His behavior stands out to the reader as something undeniable: the first traces of a sickness. In fact, even Hoang admits that, in truth, Chris’ abusive nature was something that not even she was blind to: “I should’ve broken up with him then for disrespecting his parents. That should’ve been the first warning sign of our unavoidable failure, his irrevocable temper, my default to victimhood ….” And yet, as she later explains, Hoang was “blind with a love that ruined [her].”
Later, Hoang and her husband settle into separation, and the reader is left with a crescent of hope. “Because this is how it all ends,” Hoang writes. “With brutal resentment.” As empathizers, we cannot help but pray – as if prayer has not been proven obsolete, a husk of a living thing – the author will allow herself the time and space to heal. Instead, Hoang jumps feet-first into her next relationship: the red-hot affair of lovers, strung delicately across a scattering of years. Chris melds discordantly with Harold. The love Hoang and him share, while palpable, is a blossom of violence, purpling around the edges: “For two winters now, Harold has broken up with me. He is sometimes cruel to me, sometimes delicate, as though I were an exquisite thing.” Hoang is obviously aware of the effect Chris has on her – treacherous and unforgiving, like a leech. And yet. And yet, she loves him; it is the ruination that keeps her from leaving. “My inconvenient relationship with Harold,” Hoang admits, “but how I love the distance and desire it produces.”
It is unfair to say that Hoang is ignorant to her patterns of destruction. In fact, Hoang appears to be resplendent in self-knowledge; indeed, it is this self-knowledge that characterizes A Bestiary. It is this honesty – this free fall of rawness, plummeting towards certain doom – that characterizes the author’s reflections. Hoang is aware. And yet, the author is unable to escape the path she has set herself upon. Something compels her to dig her heels in. To stay rooted, despite and in spite. Thus, a dissonance arises, seeping through the cracks of Hoang’s jade bracelet of a life: the life she wants to live, and the life she is relegated to. Imprisoned in.
“I feel like a feminist poser,” Hoang says, “talking a big game about empowerment but living a reality of passivity and self-contempt. Otherwise, I would not be able to justify staying.” The fact, though, is this: Hoang is able to justify her pain, and the ways in which her pain transmorphs itself. The tragedy of A Bestiary – that a woman can be assaulted by the labyrinthine qualities of her own suffering – becomes the tragedy of a life: self-inflicted, and little more than a grievous addiction. As Hoang writes, “I live in a perpetual state of pain and call it my own.”
Against all logic and reason, Hoang stays. In doing so, she unmakes everything she has ever believed about pain; seeing, for the first time, what suffering truly is. It is not a measure of beauty; it is not something to be praised, or sought after, or upheld. Jade bracelets – and the bruises they plant, like seedlings – are not to be yearned for blindly, without discrimination.
“There is nothing beautiful about the desolate,” Hoang writes, and indeed, there is nothing beautiful about that which is self-inflicted. There is nothing beautiful about the recurring urge. The unscratchable itch, or the insatiable crave. There is only humanity – a whorl of corruption, spiraling in its hunger and greed.
And yet. And yet.
“A rat race is a pursuit without end,” Hoang says. “It is a lab rat rolling in its wheel, sniffing hard for the prize that can only be had when the goal is reached—but the rat is never freed and the race is only over until tomorrow.” And later: “He asks if I’ve heard of the study where rats were administered small doses of heroin when they pushed a lever and they’d push it until they died.” And finally: “Jade bracelets cannot be taken off. They break with indelicacy.”
Hoang’s essay is one of defiance. Against all logic and reason, Hoang stays. Time and time again, Hoang surrenders to the pain, urged onward by something feral – instinctual, primitive; welling from inside and bursting forth.
A rat race. A pedal. And Hoang, the rat – push, push, push.