I think I have mentioned before that I am fond of the short story. During my formative high school years, I read voraciously. My beloved two volume set of the complete O. Henry. The complete Jack London. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, some Maupassant, and of course Saki. Thurber’s short works, fiction and otherwise, I also devoured. Later, I would discover Balzac and Flannery O'Connor. Although I have read fewer short works lately, I did enjoy (and review) stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sarah Orne Jewett, Sandra Cisneros, Henry James, and Tolstoy.
This book is one of my occasional forays into modern literature. Yiyun Li came to the United States from China in her mid 20s, originally intending to continue her studies in immunology. She became sidetracked by her writing career, and switched to English, which she now teaches at the University of California, Davis. Although English was not her first language, Li read English language classics extensively as a child and young adult - and it shows in her writing. Dickens in particular is named often in the book, and Li herself cites Jane Austen as popular and easily available.
Li’s writing is not merely competent. It is beautiful and haunting, with a light touch and a personal focus. These stories are mostly achingly sad, filled with loneliness and fear of vulnerability. They are not, like Maupassant, truly pessimistic and biting. They lack the edge of menace often present in Saki (although Saki ranks as one of my favorites), and also the cynicism that one rightly associates with both. I think that there are two reasons for this. First, Li isn’t writing about the malevolent forces of fate that crush the characters. Second, her focus is narrow and personal. True, there are outside forces: the setting is China in the years after the revolution through the present. Characters are affected by the executions of imagined “enemies of the state,” the torture of dissidents after Tiananmen Square, and the constant threat of punishment for unpopular opinions. Li chooses to look closely at the distance that her characters keep between each other and with others. Thus, I would not describe the mood as one of pessimism but one of pain. The sadness comes from what might have been if a connection had been made.
In this sense, the book is aggressively non-political. Li has admitted that one reason she does not publish in China or in Chinese is that she is not prepared to deal with the fallout that would occur to her family there. On the other hand, the lack of overt politics makes those moments when the atrocities of the regime do intrude that much more devastating.
The first part of the book is devoted to a novella, Kindness, which is told by a now older woman of her life to that point. Her dysfunctional parents figure prominently. Her father married a much younger, but mentally ill woman, who later commits suicide. The narrator is befriended by an older neighbor, who introduces her to literature, but warns her not to give her heart away. Unfortunately, she takes this advice far too much to heart, and she is already damaged anyway. She does her stint in the military, and lives out the rest of her life to that point utterly alone except for her books and memories.
There are some great observations in this novella, which, despite the degree of sadness, contains love as well. Professor Shan, despite her dubious warning, is a true friend until her death. Lieutenant Wei tries to reach out, despite repeated rebuffs. There is indeed kindness, but it isn’t enough. The narrator describes how she avoided her mother’s disapproval: “I had learned that if one remained unresponsive in such situations one could become transparent; when my mother’s eyes peeled my clothes off piece by piece they would meet nothing underneath but air.”
Professor Shan also shares another gem. When explaining that her status as an orphan led to difficulties in finding employment, she notes, “People who think they know their own stories do not appreciate other people’s mysteries.” I have been turning this one over in my head, and I think that it represents more than just it’s obvious meaning in the story. Those who believe they know, that have a tidy little package of their beliefs, whether political (as in the communist regime) or religious or philosophical, cannot be bothered to understand the pain of others. Those who don’t fit in the worldview are just ignored or dismissed, like the orphan, fired because her story was uncomfortable.
The descriptions of military life were interesting to me as well. There are more similarities than differences between the Western forces and the Eastern - even female units as in this story. (I am watching Band of Brothers on my ironing nights, and the resemblance is uncanny.)
All in all, a memorable tale, with the “if only”s lingering in the air long after I finished it.
Li’s characters are primarily middle aged or older, which is a notable choice. Li herself is close to my age, and while I suppose I am not middle aged, most of these characters are at a completely different time of life. Children are grown and gone - or there never were children. Parents are either aged or dead, and friends have moved away or become estranged. “A Man Like Him” muses on aging and the loss of desirability - a rather disconcerting thought - and Li handles it in a way that heightens the sense of discomfort and loss.
On the other hand, in “The Proprietress,” the author lets in a bit of dry humor. “she herself had been watched by older people, though the number of those who remembered her as a young girl with two pigtails, or as a new wife with a plump and desirable body, was dwindling now. In a few years the memory of her youth would be gone with the oldsters, and nobody would contradict her even if she told the wildest lies about her life.”
“The Proprietress” may be my favorite of the bunch, a tale of a shrewd woman who practiced (rather illegal) capitalism by smuggling goods into a prison for political prisoners and selling them at a profit. All while befriending and assisting the wives and children of the prisoners.
Another theme that undergirds the stories is that of the arranged marriage. Many of the key relationships are formed under the old cultural rules, and there are thus entanglements. As one character puts it about a marriage where the bride was (gasp!) not a virgin, having been widowed, unbeknownst to the groom, “What kind of father would foist a secondhand woman on his own son as a wife?” The ties that bind are not often love, but some sense of desperation, duty, or fear.
And then, when the wheels come off of one marriage in “House Fire,” there is the puzzlement about what went wrong. If I have heard this once in my family law cases, I have heard it more times than I wish to recall.
“An old man in love is like an old house on fire, which burns easily and burns down fast,” went a popular joke that circulated as a text message from one cellphone to another around the city. The joke must have been made by some young, carefree soul, but how sadly true it was. Mrs. Fan was taken aback by the intensity of the fire that engulfed her marriage: Three decades of trivial arguments and unimportant disagreements turned out to be flammable material.
It is a story that repeats itself whenever one spouse is disregarded for years. As soon as a better offer comes along, he or she is gone.
A few more quotes stayed with me. From “A Man Like Him.”
“The weak minded choose to hate,” she said. “It’s the least painful thing to do, isn’t it?”
From “House Fire.”
The world was intolerable of men with sensitive hearts.
And finally, in what is perhaps the summary of the collection, the closing lines from the last story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.”
They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.
All of these lines - and many like them - are perfectly placed in the context of the narrative. This collection is full of food for thought about how we protect our hearts at the expense of love, and how we often fail to care about “other people’s mysteries.”
As a final note, I appreciate that the author refused to give in to the all-too-common modern tendency to use language and sex to garner attention. Those sexual references that exist (and are not nearly as graphic as, say, Shakespeare) serve the author’s purposes. If anything, the author’s general restraint and avoidance of all sensation work to make these miniatures more powerful in their effect. Li uses the smallest of gestures to twist the knife.