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K-Ming Chang’s novel “Organ Meats” opens with a proposal. Anita implores her best friend Rainie to become a dog with her, in order to bind themselves together with red thread leashes of mutual belonging. In return, Rainie asks for at least a week to weigh the pros and cons of doghood. How does such a world — bursting with dog-headed women and women-headed dogs, banana ghosts, wishes tied into realization with red thread — produce the practical Rainie? Amidst the surreal landscape of “Organ Meats,” the ordinary is paradoxical, yet beautiful.
In the novel, Anita and Rainie pursue doghood through visits to their neighborhood sycamore tree and the talking stray dogs that live there. When Rainie moves away, Anita falls into a coma that only Rainie can fix. The novel depicts girlhood, inheritance, power, and love through intense female relationships and visceral magical realism. Chang’s dreamlike style gorgeously depicts these themes, albeit at the cost of muddying the narrative stakes.
Chang’s language enchants as the standout feature of “Organ Meats.” As magical realism leaks out of its borders into poetry, Chang’s wordplay reaches visceral truths about female and immigrant identities. “We have been widowed from our bodies,” the dog pack intones, because “widows are named for their losses, for what they’re without.” By divorcing words from their ordinary context, Chang infuses intangible losses of belonging and lineage into bodily agony.
This language also conveys the distorted logic of youth with an eloquent certainty that suspends disbelief and invites readers into a surreal reality. Intimidated by Anita’s older sister Vivian, Rainie “knew she would die if she saw Vivian in her entirety, like a deity revealing their true and fatal form.” Such ideas are as intense and multilayered as adolescent encounters with love, fear, and lust. Meanwhile, the girls’ assertions that “birds do not become utensils” and “dogs don’t have human mouths and human tongues” are quaintly absurd in the unreal world of the novel, where such things very much happen. Children are certain of themselves and their knowledge, Chang shows, in any vast, impossible universe.
On the periphery of girlhood are many surreal vignettes of family histories. In memories about the cultural obligations of daughters, Chang writes, “You were bred to prioritize other lives. In contemporary language, you are an insurance policy. On the other hand, a son is a possibility.” Chang dives into widely suppressed emotions, employing her precise language in painful detail. “Organ Meats” hits deepest when it unravels the tensions between mothers and daughters, between girls and boys, and between female companions.
Despite this, the novel’s overarching timeline is disproportionately structured, inducing a lack of emotional fulfillment. The novel’s first half follows the lead-up to Rainie’s departure, setting up the girls’ responses to be the climactic conflict. Yet any reaction is stunted by Anita’s coma a few chapters after Rainie leaves, followed immediately by a jump ten years into the future. With Rainie transported right to adulthood and Anita unconscious, there is barely room for them to evolve as people. As the structure also shifts in perspective, form, and time, its disjointedness undermines the stakes of Anita’s coma and the impact of time spent apart.
Emotional development is also crucially undersupplied, given that Anita and Rainie’s relationship has undercurrents of toxic dependence, shared trauma, and homoeroticism. Chang’s language conveys this with a beauty that embodies the intricate insights and irresistible trance of deep friendship: “when her fingers tighten the knot around your neck until you can’t breathe … you understand that beauty is the absence of mercy.”However, with Rainie’s selfless efforts to revive Anita from her coma, the pair’s power imbalance is never resolved. Perhaps had more space been devoted to gentler moments of their friendship, it would feel worth saving.
“Organ Meats” is carnal, gutsy, and animated with language. However, such an experience requires an anchor that the novel’s unbalanced structure fails to deliver. While this may make some readers feel disconnected, those who love poetic magical realism will still find a feast in “Organ Meats.”
—Staff writer Isabelle A. Lu can be reached at email@example.com.
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