Dialogues with the Dead: A Harrowing New Novel from Yiyun Li: Yiyun Li's Where Reasons End Is a Short, Ruthlessly Heartbreaking Book

By Wagner, Erica | New Statesman (1996), February 8, 2019 | Go to article overview

Dialogues with the Dead: A Harrowing New Novel from Yiyun Li: Yiyun Li's Where Reasons End Is a Short, Ruthlessly Heartbreaking Book


Wagner, Erica, New Statesman (1996)


A mother and a son converse. He is 16; she is in middle age, married, with a younger son too; but neither husband nor the younger boy make more than glancing appearances in this short, ruthlessly heartbreaking book. The first line of the novel interrupts the mother's thoughts, like a voice out of nowhere: "Mother dear, Nikolai said." And so their banter begins, a kind of seamless argument that is the narrator's attempt to cling on to her son. "Here I was, holding on to my attentiveness because that's all I could do for him now." The novel is set in the weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas--festive times, family times. But, not long before, Nikolai has killed himself: his mother is a writer, and this imagined dialogue is the only way she knows to keep him in her world.

Li is one of an elite coterie of writers--Conrad, Nabokov--who have chosen not to write in their native tongues. Born in Beijing, she came to the United States--after university and a spell in the Chinese army--to study immunology at the University of Iowa; a writing class changed the course of her life. In 2006 her first book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was showered with awards, including the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award; in 2010 she was one of the New Yorker's "20 under 40" gang--and that same year was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, more commonly known as the "genius" grant. She has published two collections of short stories, two other novels and, in 2017, a memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, an account of her breakdown and two suicide attempts. Not long after that book was published, Li's 16--year--old son committed suicide.

In Where Reasons End the narrator makes passing reference to "the year of my disintegration" but despite the harrowing comparisons that may be made, this novel does not invite an autobiographical reading. There is little story, as such: its 16 chapters--one for each year of the son's life--are conversations only, each sequence interrogating meaning. The meaning of individual words, the meaning of existence itself, the meaning of the conventions we adhere to in our quotidian existence: all are brought under the microscope of this bookish mother and her precocious, plain-speaking son.

What to do, as a writer, when language fails? "I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy", the narrator says, and proceeds to unfold the etymologies of what she acknowledges as "cliches "--"grieve", "explicate"--as if an examination of language offers a place of safety, a toehold to reality. …

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