Little Beast by C Pam Zhang is propelled by a tsunami of momentum gathered and flung forth by the narrative voice of its protagonist—a paranoid, delusional, displaced, misplaced, and misguided middle/high school student who is bewildered, troubled, and so writhing with uncertainty that she can only act on base ambitions, on some level. We learn the ultimate reason for why—why all or any of what happens in the story—but not until the end, though we are clued in throughout. I’m being intentionally vague about this because the conclusion at which I arrived—meaning, what I think the story is about—only came from a gathering of several details and clues interspersed throughout that aren’t fully realized until the end, at which point we learn who this narrator is and what afflicts her wholly. Or at least we think we know. There’s so much left to question, in the best possible way.
But we can’t talk about this story without first addressing the figurative language: “My posture was liquid and my spine nonexistent despite containing the requisite thirty-three vertebrae.” Or, “Once again a girl appeared, summoned by my blood as a shark is summoned across murky waters.” These examples, like so many other lines in the story, are so rich and multilayered that one wonders at times if what we’re reading is real or surreal. And later still, with the series of events that occur, we’re still as confused at the end as we were at the beginning, but we aren’t as confused as the narrator herself: “When the door began to open, I slopped into the breach, pleading, my mouth wide with explanations, never mind how I looked or what I spattered.” But maybe we’re not as confused as we think we are. There might be a lesson here about the mentally ill; about what happens if people aren’t given proper treatments and therapy needed to address the mental illness. Or maybe that interpretation of the story is wrong. Maybe it’s a more surface-level here’s-what-happens-in-extreme-cases-of…. Of what? Of adolescence? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be sure.
The story, on the surface, is about a young woman who winds up in Alta, an all girls school “built on progressive principles” where “senators’ daughters, screenwriters’ daughters, celebrity daughters’” etc, attend. This is also where the protagonist’s father works as a custodian and where she attends on “scholarship.” While there, she meets a host of young women in a special, “silent” group, and these women are awarded nicknames given to them by the protagonist. Names such as “mouse,” “elf,” and “armored.”
While the narrator is battling the ongoing onslaught of typical (and not-so-typical) school and adolescent issues, there’s also the father who is a wonderful character in his own right, full of heart and ambition, and perhaps what he’s guilty of is that he cares too much. But we understand why. A blue collar, working-class father who allows his daughter, who he calls “girlie,” to stand on his shoulders to reach heights he’ll never reach. It’s a common story of a parent wanting better for their children—that the child(ren) achieve the “success” that the parents weren’t able to achieve for him/herself, for whatever reasons held them back. And what’s conspicuously missing throughout is the mother who, we learn three-quarters of the way through the story, died in childbirth. What, if any, affect does that have here? Well, we’re not exactly sure.
The demise of the narrator occurs rapidly (possible cutting, anorexia, paranoia, delusions, more), but the unraveling of the parent-child relationship, while on the surface can be explained by “typical” teenage angst, in the end seems an utter misunderstanding. Again, this is only if we are to read this on face value. If read as a surrealistic cautionary tale, then we know we are no better than the selfish ambitions that propel us forward at any cost, even if those gains mean leaving behind those who have helped us the most (such as a caring father). Because in the end, really, does it matter at all?
And perhaps there’s another way to read this, which is maybe how I best understand the story. Maybe it’s not intended to be read at face value, and perhaps not as a surrealistic cautionary tale, but maybe as a modern-day fable told from the perspective of a mentally unstable young person, whose actions she’s not fully aware of because of her instability, and this causes her to act in permanently detrimental ways. A fable, traditionally, possesses some kind of lesson and often features animals prominently. They don’t always end well, but there’s a lesson to learn somewhere in the story. Maybe that’s the case here. Maybe. Oh, the vagueness! Oh, the elusive dodging of what actually happens! I know, I know. But I would feel as if I were denying you an Experience knowing I gave everything away on a platter to you, when in fact you could read this deliciously mischievous, sad, confusing, and manically paced and rendered piece on your own.
Check out the story here.