The Evolutionary Revolution
Les Figues Press
Reviewed by J.A. Tyler
This is a book about evolution, about a failed evolutionary revolution, and in a layering deftly handled by one of the new queens of fairy tale play, the text itself also evolves and the language is used for revolt: "A long time ago, long before man walked upright, the earth was filled with water. It was a sphere of pure ocean. During this era, man flew in the atmosphere with tiny wings attached to her thighs. Back then, man as a sub-species was kind." There are plenty of books that sturdily house a story within a story within a story but Lily Hoang has taken it upon herself to evolve this conceptual foundation, making her stories in The Evolutionary Revolution the stories of the stories inside the stories told by the stories to break the stories and build new stories. This is, to put it mildly, a book that is doing something masterful and glorious: "She was gentle, never provoking arguments, never killing other beings for sustenance, or even pleasure. It’s said that man’s language didn’t account for cruelty. Acts of aggression were nameless and silent, as if they never existed. During the day, man flew over the ocean, playfully chattering about this or that, and at night, she slept on the moon."
When The Evolutionary Revolution opens it proposes to be about several stories all tied together in tandem, and it doesn't take Hoang very long to get us mixed into and caring about all of these narratives that are, in reality, mere threads into a new beginning – a beginning that we must surpass in order to realize that Hoang is telling the same story and all different stories and no story at all. This book evolves and blooms as we turn its pages, and the flower that opens is a magnificent beast: "The Evolution Council was unhappy when man started using her eyes again. They had done a great deal for man when she decided to seal her eyes so long ago. They had, in fact, convened a special meeting just to help man cope with the loss of one of her most valuable sense."
There is obvious depth and complexity in Hoang’s book, the narrative divides and multiplies, turns away and turns back on itself; however, it is in the simplicity of her language that Hoang achieves so much: "Back before the daughter was born, the father waited until his wife was asleep, and when he saw her breath move in the calm of silence, he bent his mouth close to the fetus. His hand cradled her body and whispered a story into her unformed ears." There are moments when the arc of The Evolutionary Revolution teeters on the edge of philosophical cliffs or environmental diatribes but Hoang steers her ship artfully and carefully way from those falls by basic language and gentle moves, just at you worry the journey is lost: "He told her that two decades later, they would meet again, and he would forgive her for killing him, that she should be unafraid. He told her she needed to maintain strength, to build her focus to help her brothers, that not all revolutions end with death. He told her this as a preface to the story, a private conversation between father and daughter."
In this moment of literary time, when the broken narrative and fragmented through-line are so often being employed by writers and, seemingly, against readers, Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution is breaking and un-breaking language alongside her readers. Hoang is carrying us within her earthquake, within her tumbled rearrangement of the world and her unrelenting manipulations of these fairy tale elements that we have always held and cradled, until we realize just what terrors and haunts Hoang has us holding so dearly to our chests.