Where Reasons End
By Yiyun Li, Hamish Hamilton, £12.99
In her 2017 memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li describes her own journal as “a long argument with myself: a lucid voice questioning judiciously, and a more forceful voice speaking defiantly”. This is the form of Where Reasons End, a novel structured as a series of dialogues. Where her memoir began as an endeavour to understand and survive her own suicide attempt, the novel is the narrator’s endeavour to understand and survive the suicide of her 16-year-old son and is dedicated to Li’s own son, who killed himself in 2017.
The unnamed narrator, like Li herself, is a Chinese-American novelist, obsessively exact in her use of language. Her dead son Nikolai, a precocious poet with a talent for baking, is “unyielding to the point of extravagant intrepidity”, unable to tolerate his own imperfections. This is a boy who charmed everyone with his wit and his oboe playing, but who found life almost unbearable: a tragic genius just about able to mock himself and be mocked for this persona. Grieving friends ask how they missed his pain and she must explain that for some people a facade is necessary even with those closest to them.
Several weeks after Nikolai’s death, the boy appears to his mother on an ordinary morning and the dialogues begin: he reads her thoughts and speaks his responses. We’re not dealing with anything so uncouth as a ghost, but he’s present less as a physical being than as a series of words, volleyed between the living and the dead as they parse the meanings of “deadline” and “dead end”.
As in George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, there’s a sense of an underworld with rules of its own. Nikolai is unable to see physical objects or feel diurnal rhythms. Not knowing the rules, she worries that he’ll vanish if she transgresses. But where Saunders portrayed a boy taken up by a community of the dead, making the Bardo as real for the reader as the world of the living, here the reader is confined in the more claustrophobic world of the narrator’s mind.
Nikolai’s mother knows that she’s probably just inventing the dialogues and is “a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy”. Mother and son can entwine easily in her mind because they were once joined as flesh. “I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” One of the most moving aspects of the book is its perplexed return to babyhood: the pained knowledge that the mother’s grief is unique because this creature has grown inside her. “Any seasoned parent was an expert at catching,” she observes, wondering why, having caught the toppling baby and the somersaulting spoons, she has been left with nothing to catch except words.
As always, Li writes with a shimmering and deeply felt precision. In previous novels, she’s taken on a larger canvas: The Vagrants was a social novel about hardship in a Chinese village. But it feels now as though her whole writing life has been paring down towards this more intimate form. Its compression is hard won, the result both of harrowing lived experience and of moving through realism to something a bit like autofiction, insistent on its integrity. She is no longer creating characters, but giving us their voices in a kind of sustained present, never concealing the fact that we are reading words typed on a page. And her sustained investigation of the relationship between thought and feeling has become the central drama.
Li had a career as a scientist before turning to fiction, and she described her habit of scientifically examining every thought in her memoir. There she denigrated her tendency to use thoughts to keep feelings at bay. “I dread the moment when a thought trails off and a feeling starts,” she wrote. But she also admiringly quoted Marianne Moore, who writes in the poem Silence that “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint”. Love and suffering, Li was suggesting, are just as strong in those who appear to be thinking too much to feel.
In Where Reasons End, both the narrator and her son are preoccupied with the relationship between thinking and suffering. She tells him that she wishes to avoid suffering by being less “sharp and bright” and that he suffers more because of his insistence on clarity. “I suffer more because you want to do what the world does, to dim the bright and to blunt the sharp,” he retorts. And she can only agree: he has, after all, learned his sharpness from her.
The question of blame around suicide is always appallingly freighted. Because she understands suffering, she can’t blame her son for killing himself. Instead she accepts his blame for forcing him to be alive in the first place. For years before his death, he’d said: “If you write about suffering, if you understand suffering, why did you give me a life?” It’s both a reasonable question and a shocking one. What right do we have to create life? Perhaps we are all versions of Frankenstein when we do so, inflicting a terrifying freedom on another creature and having to accept that it’s up to our progeny to decide how to use that life and whether to sustain it.
When Nikolai was alive and he asked this question, she could only answer with cliches, promising vaguely that everything would work out in the end. Now she thinks that he’s entitled to query why parents feel they have the right to give their children lives, but insists that “a mind that sees no path or direction to flee despair can be expanded nevertheless. Who can say if expansion may not one day make despair sufferable?”
This question haunts the book. Could he have learned to expand his mind, and therefore to find life bearable, if he’d made himself live long enough to try it? Certainly there’s a kind of airy expansiveness in the dialogues, especially when, a few pages before the end, Nikolai dismisses words for falling short of making the unspoken speakable. “Words fall short, yes,” she responds, “but sometimes their shadows can reach the unspeakable.” Do words have shadows, he asks, sceptically. Yes they do, she says, because we look for depths in words that we can’t find in life.
It’s moving to hear the narrator, who has sought linguistic precision all her life, placing her faith in the shadows beneath the surface of language. If Nikolai could have allowed himself to dwell in the shadows, perhaps he could have lived. What good can it do him to learn this now? But the argument with her son is of course ultimately an argument with herself. And it’s through this expansive movement between words and their shadows that the narrator can experience the full devastation of her grief at the same time as keeping in view her son’s perspective, honouring his right to end his own life and acknowledging, as Li wrote in her memoir, that “one’s wish to die can be as blind and intuitive as one’s will to live”.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury).