FEBRUARY 21, 2019
“A PARENT SHOULD never be a child’s biographer,” writes Yiyun Li in her slim, contemplative novel, Where Reasons End. The narrator is speaking to the ghost of her son, Nikolai, dead at 16 by suicide. A parent should never have to bury their child; a parent should never be forced to deliver their child’s eulogy, and yet, a eulogy is what Li attempts in this little work of fiction. The book brims with love, empathy, and longing. The result is beautiful in the same way that sitting in a silent church pew is beautiful.
Through a series of imagined conversations with Nikolai, which take place in a peaceful non-place — an empty space, where the living and the dead are able to meet on neutral ground — Li conjures a remembrance of a relationship. These conversations are a pleasure to read. They unfold naturally: intimate, playful, and affectionate. As mother and child speak, their words lift into a familiar dance, circle around the same old rubs: teasing, critiquing, disagreeing, forgiving, and trying to understand one another. It is clear that both sides of the dialogue are intelligent and precise. At the same time, it is impossible to forget that both voices are being animated by the grieving mother. The child, Nikolai, is dead.
“I love you so much,” he assures his mother at one point. “I wish I didn’t hurt you.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that at all,” the mother answers. “What’s hurtful is life.”
The book is full of exchanges like these, although, this example is more nakedly sentimental than most. For the majority, topics discussed by mother and child tend toward the philosophical, sparse, and quixotic. “In Buddhist tradition,” Li writes, a departed soul lingers in this world for 49 days before vanishing into the next. Li does not believe in superstitions, but when the 49-day mark arrives in her own mourning, she worries that Nikolai will disappear from the conversation. The fact that he stays reveals more about the writer than it does about Nikolai, who is, after all, a product of fiction.
They reminisce about Nikolai’s talent and fondness for knitting. They remember the pictures he drew as a child, the T-shirts he wore, and the dreams he had at night. They try to recall which Elizabeth Bishop poem he memorized in sixth grade, but fail. The mother tells Nikolai how many of his friends wrote letters to her when they learned he would no longer be coming to school; she laments that Nikolai might have found life more livable if only she could have taught him to enjoy the frivolous, and let go of his unyielding perfectionism. Perfectionism seems to be a quality shared by mother and child alike.
Li describes the new house that she and Nikolai’s father eventually move in to, and the first Christmas tree without him there. She confesses that she is having a hard time writing. The conversation often comes back to writing — and, in this area, Nikolai emerges as his mother’s harshest critic. He yawns at her metaphors and rolls his eyes at her earnestness. Li keeps saying that she feels muddled, but Nikolai is always clear. His words appear to her enshrined by the supernatural omniscience and calm that can only be achieved in afterlife. The mother doubts herself and asks how she could have been a better parent. But Nikolai does not waver in his certainty about his decision to quit the world. Not once.
This is grief. One mother bargaining against the impossible — trying to solve cryptic riddles about existential price tags, the cost of time and the finality of forever. “A parent should never be a child’s biographer,” she says again, realizing that she never taught him much about music. He had developed a liking for Dvořák’s violin compositions, regardless. Another idea she often circles back to: “To love is to trespass.” Especially the love between a parent and a child. Maybe the trespass of maternal affection really is too much. Too much wishful expectation, and too much hope. Hope is a problematic emotion, according to Li.
In 2012, Li gave an interview to the Guardian in which she spoke openly about her own suicide attempts. This was not long after she won the MacArthur “genius” grant. In the interview, she talks about how much she hated her mother, growing up in China, because she perceived her mother as a sad, unhappy product of communist rule. Li’s mother loved her controllingly and ungenerously, like a dictator. Li’s mother often accused her of being selfish. That is why Li left China. It is why she abandoned her mother tongue, and now writes in English. It is why she refuses to let her books be translated into Chinese. It is why she wanted so much to be a nurturing mother to her own kids.
“I always imagine writing is for people who don’t want to feel or don’t know how to,” she writes in Where Reasons End. And after Nikolai finds a quibble with her wording, she asks: “Does a person commit suicide because he doesn’t want to live, or doesn’t know how to live?” She remembers how, when she was a child, her mother forced her to learn to knit with an old ball of used, red yarn, which had lost its elasticity. Raveling and unraveling. She hated that. But in the days and weeks after Nikolai’s death, she sits in his room, knitting, unraveling, knitting, unraveling. It is interesting that a practice that was pushed on her by her own mother, whom she has rejected so violently in adult life, returns to her in this moment of parental grief. Apart from this one reference, Li does not say much about her mother in Where Reasons End.
She does talk a lot about writing. For all her accomplishments in the literary world, Li admits that she might regret having spent her life reading and writing. Maybe it has been a waste of time. It is no longer clear that her hours spent in solitude have been valuable. Maybe writing has turned out to be a distracting chore, worse than knitting and un-knitting the same spool of yarn for hours. At the same time, Nikolai loved reading, and Nikolai loved knitting. Li does not make this explicit in the book, but sometimes she seems to reach unconsciously for her own mother’s lesson — the value of discipline. The value of work, meditation, study, practice, and precision. The value of spending time.
The merits of hard work are a difficult lesson to accept from any mother, but more so when you remember certain facts of Li’s biography. The fact that she was a math prodigy as a child, raised in a community of nuclear physicists and scientists. Li immigrated to the United States to study immunology at the University of Iowa, just like her parents wanted her to. They set the bar unusually high for her. Or rather, maybe it is not unusual for parents to hold their children to high standards, but Li’s intellectual achievements are uncommonly impressive. As an immigrant medical student, she stumbled almost accidentally into the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and it spoke to her, so she switched career paths.
Aesthetically, Where Reasons End is an austere novel, but there are passages with heavy weight. There are parts that begin to feel redundant and repetitive. By page 82, an impatient reader might well huff and wonder, “How is she still talking about how sad she is her kid died?” I do not say this to be cruel, but rather to call attention to the very insight Li is building toward — the idea that the slow accumulation of small repetitions might be worth something after all. Muscles grown, a calendar filled, a scarf completed and then worn. Knit one, purl two. Page one, page two, page three. By circling, meditatively, around these impossible questions — Why did my child not want to live? — Li approaches something close to understanding. Some comfort. Or the tiniest release from her worry and confusion.
“How can I teach myself to want to live?” is another question Li asks. This is not a question for a mathematician. It is a question for an artist. Maybe even for a monastic nun, or a high temple priestess. In order to find the answer, Li must ask the dead. She is afraid to ask, too, because, as the author of her books, she knows that she is the only person who can provide the answer in the end. She must provide an answer. In this novel, the mother asks her son. Which is to say, she asks his grave. She asks, and then she listens. She listens very hard.
“Eavesdropping used to be a crime,” she says near the end of the book.
Nikolai reminds her that he has heard her say this in talks and lectures more than once. “Writing fiction is to eavesdrop on your characters’ hearts,” he parrots her.
When he says this, it occurs to Li that she will never make that remark about eavesdropping again. It would make her sad. She is not sure if she has tried to peer too closely to Nikolai’s heart — trespassed, stolen, loved too dearly — or the other way around. It is he who has learned something by eavesdropping on her, his mother. This thought makes her happy. And maybe that small happiness will do.
Ultimately, Where Reasons End is a tremendous act of empathy. Despite Li’s own warning to herself that a parent should never write about a child, she has channeled something powerful and true here. Her empathy and courage are what make the book work. Anyone who has ever wished they could talk again to someone who is gone will find solace in these pages.