Some narrators are eager to reveal themselves and welcome the reader into their lives; others take their time, and it’s only after completing the last page, sometimes with a deep sigh, that the reader realizes they do not know the narrator’s name.
Yiyun Li’s latest novel Where Reasons End is set in a world that transcends time and space. Having lost her sixteen-year-old son to suicide in 2017, Li builds this world set apart from other people for a woman—a Chinese-American writer like herself—and her son Nikolai, who took his own life at sixteen. There, they have difficult conversations about the business of living, the needlessness of clichés, the porosity of language, the elusive nature of time, and the complexities and intimacies of parent-child relationships in a manner that reminds me of Elizabeth Strout’s works. However, while Strout writes about the everydayness of her central characters, their joys and the privacy of their sorrows, often in relation to other people in the community, Li sets her characters in a sort of vacuum where the few presences other than the mother and son come into the story from passing remarks in their dialogue. Every spoken and unspoken word bears its own weight. “The unspeakable is a wound that stays open always, always, and forever,” the narrator says.
One imagines the mother and son sitting opposite each other, talking, opening up, teaching themselves new ways to measure time. Sometimes it’s as though they are performing a mundane task, like baking cakes and pies—an activity Nikolai enjoyed—and talking while they’re at it. What we know of Nikolai: He was a great cook and a brilliant oboe player who, at eight, criticized his mother’s writing and told her editor that she should have pressed her harder. We also know that he gave himself the name “Nikolai,” liked to write, and carried with him a deep melancholy—some of his early stories caused his teacher and mother great concern because of the depth of their agony.
The two move through this novel without much consideration for time or other lives. They aren’t in the same world, but they are in their own world. This is where they meet.
“Days are not the only place where we live,” Nikolai said.
“Time is not the only place where we live,” I said. “Days are.”
“I don’t have to have days to live now. And yet I have to live in days.”
Small arguments, discussions about the proper use of adjectives, rhymes, coinages, repetitions, doubts, sadness, laughter, fears, guilt, subtle humor, difficult emotions—all laid bare. The reader sees the bond that holds the two of them together, despite their separation in reality. It begs the question: What counts as reality when the world of the living and the world of the dead begin to bleed into each other?
The intersections of private and public life have been a constant theme in Li’s work. “Suicide, among the most private decisions one can make, is often taken over by the public,” Li writes in “Memory Is a Melodrama from which No One Is Exempt,” an essay from her memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. In the collection, she writes about her relationship with herself and the world, and the time she spent in a mental institution after attempting suicide. She also mentions her hatred for the pronoun “I” because “living is not an original business.” This aversion might also explain why the narrator in Where Reasons End remains unnamed. However, the “I” in the book speaks to the exploration and limitations of the self. How much devotion, reflection, stillness, loss, or emptiness is required for the self to clearly see itself?
Li has written about her deliberate choice to write in English and not Chinese, her native language. Her work has taken on broader forms in the past, populated mostly by Chinese characters. Her debut, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is a collection of stories about everyday people, their loneliness and daily attempts at life. Her first novel, The Vagrants, is a portrait of China’s past in a series of linked stories of people living in an industrial town. There is, however, a certain seclusion to Where Reasons End. The familiar is mystified and philosophized. It’s a harrowing read that requires time, patience, and utmost focus; I find something devastatingly new whenever I return to this kind of book.
Art and philosophy can help people deal with grief, the story tells us. By returning to words, the art form the narrator has dedicated herself to her entire life, she is able to seek out her son. And in doing so, she is not looking to console herself, not even to understand, but to absorb.
But calling Nikolai’s actions inexplicable was like calling a migrant bird on a new continent lost. Who can say that the vagrant doesn’t have a reason to change the course of its flight. Nothing inexplicable for me—only I didn’t want to explain: A mother’s job is to enfold not to unfold.
It’s difficult finding the right language to express grief. Some things remain unspoken, regardless of the depth of one’s love for someone. “Luckily my mind is not limited by my vocabulary,” she says. To grieve is to demonstrate dedication to those we love.
In many religions, the expectation of an afterlife makes embracing death more bearable for the dying; for their loved ones, it helps to dull the despair of dealing with grief. There is hope of reunion. As the narrator and her son have a back-and-forth about words that are prefixed with “after,” the reader gets a glimpse of the narrator’s thoughts on afterlife.
“Are we in aftertime, then?” she asks.
“I am, but not you… You’ve said you live in days, so you are still in time. You can’t live in aftertime,” replies Nikolai.
Li has written in the past about her rebellion against fatalism, the idea that everything is predetermined. Can a person be predestined to take their own life? How does a fatalist confront the anguish that follows a loved one ‘s suicide? How does a non-fatalist approach a loss of this magnitude without blaming themselves for the rest of their life? For the woman in the story, in the end, the dialogue with her son is a dialogue with herself, with life. A communion shared, a prayer. There are no judgments. She isn’t blaming him or herself . She herself knows what it’s like to be in a world where she really does not want to be. “I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.”
Where Reasons End has no plot, no arc, no drama, no suspense. Just strings of words that keep your eyes glued to the pages and have you intermittently close them to fully digest some parts. At the end, one hopes that the narrator has come to terms with her truth. “Answers don’t fly around like words,” she says, in response to her son’s contemplations towards the end of the book.
The novel is a fine blend of profound pain and beauty. It asks, Why do we even write? What purpose do words serve in the face of calamity? How does one find the appropriate language for grief? Nothing adequately prepares one to say goodbye to those we love, but perhaps writing can serve as an attempt to grapple with the realities of loss. “I have been writing to prepare myself my entire career,” the narrator concludes. As though the purpose of all the years of practicing the craft has only led to this road—to handle this grief.
Her words call to mind the closing line of Patti Smith’s beautiful, soul-searching nonfiction book, Devotion. “Why do we write?” she asks. “Because we cannot simply live.”