WHERE REASONS END
By Yiyun Li
Near the beginning of Yiyun Li’s elliptical new novel, “Where Reasons End,” the unnamed narrator describes the difficult task she has set for herself in writing this particular book, which takes the form of an imagined conversation between a mother and her dead son. “I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy. Already there were three clichés.” The first is the word “grieve”: Considering the word’s etymology — something the narrator often does with words here — she notes it’s from the Latin for “to burden” and “grave, heavy” and wonders, in a feat of clarity she repeats many times in the book, “What kind of mother would consider it a burden to live in the vacancy left behind by a child?” The second cliché is “inexplicable”: “Nothing inexplicable for me — only I didn’t want to explain: A mother’s job is to enfold, not to unfold.” The third cliché is “tragedy,” which neither she nor her son is willing to assess as a description of what happened, except to say that the word originally meant “goat song,” and what, even, is that?
The humor in this book is subtle yet potent, always followed by a lifelike echo of absurdity. Puns — of which Li, a nonnative English speaker who has now written six books in the language, is delightfully fond — skip from one point to the next until they circle back to the occasion for the conversation: The not-inexplicable not-tragedy the narrator is not-grieving is the suicide of her 16-year-old son, whom she calls Nikolai, though that’s not his name.
Li wrote “Where Reasons End” in the months after losing her own son to suicide, and the responsibility the fiction writer takes on here mimics that of motherhood, a recurring concern for her. The abject sadness that backgrounds this novel pushes the current debate about the tension between writing and mothering — ushered in by a series of new books on motherhood — past logistical and political concerns into the realm of existential crisis. In fictionalizing this conversation — in doing as she has “always been doing: writing stories” — the narrator has made the meeting between her and her son “take place,” though the world in which they talk is not one limited by time or space but rather one “made up by words.”
Though she tries to establish that the pair no longer have to “abide by the rules that bind a child and a parent,” the “guiltless hope” or “hopeless guilt” that surrounds that relationship tugs at them; mother and soon are still locked in a struggle of need and obligation, even as they seem to have gotten along well when Nikolai was alive. (It surely helped that he was the kind of kid who, in middle school, wrote a short story about the Russian Revolution.) Were it not another cliché, I might call Nikolai a fully realized character; he’s precociously wise as well as a bitter deliverer of harsh truths both petty and philosophical, often at the same time. “No offense,” he tells his mother at one point, “but you don’t have an expansive vocabulary.” In this situation, who would?