In 2012, the novelist Yiyun Li twice tried to take her own life. She wrote of the experience in “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” a series of enigmatic essays in which she traced her depression and lifelong desire to disappear. “You should be very careful every day for the rest of your life,” she recalled a doctor warning her. “Things could sneak up on you.”
There was no subtle creep of sadness to watch for, however. What happened was blunt and nightmarish. Months after the book was published, in 2017, Li’s 16-year-old son killed himself.
In the months after his death, Li began writing a new novel. “Where Reasons End” imagines a dialogue between a mother and her teenage son after he has been lost to suicide. It is aloof, angular and idiosyncratic, as Li’s personal pieces tend to be; her previous novels, like “The Vagrants” and “Kinder Than Solitude,” in contrast, are more conventional, majestically bleak portraits, often of the Communist China of her childhood.
Li’s characters share the credo from a Marianne Moore poem that “the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint.” (As a writer, Li has an avowed phobia of using the word “I” — too melodramatic, she says.) Mother and son in this novel rarely openly grieve. There is no rage or accusation; the question of why he killed himself is never explicitly raised, although the mother suspects it lies in his harsh perfectionism:
“Who, my dear child, has taken the word lovable out of your dictionary and mine, and replaced it with perfect?
“I wish you had made me an enemy, I said, rather than yourself. Mothers, I thought, would be perfect for that role.
“You can’t be that for me, Mommy, Nikolai said. I’ve found a perfect enemy in myself.”
It’s a rare moment of candor. Typically mother and son banter and philosophize, as clever (and occasionally grating) as characters out of Tom Stoppard. Their glittering debates about time, and the politics of grammar, feel like levies against overwhelming emotion.
When the mother succumbs from time to time, Nikolai mocks her. “Sometimes I’m so sad I feel like a freak,” she says. “That sounds like self-pity unrestrained,” he responds, superior and impatient — a teenager. She reminds him that she does not mope, she does not keen. Only once does she permit herself a note of yearning when she recalls her son’s “unhurried elegance.” He used to remind her of a gray heron.
“Where Reasons End” belongs to a band of books produced in the forge of intense pain; their authors, aristocrats of suffering — think of “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” Joan Didion’s memoirs of the deaths of her husband and daughter in close succession; “Wave,” Sonali Deraniyagala’s account of the loss of her children, husband and parents in the 2004 Asian tsunami; or “Family Life,” Akhil Sharma’s thinly fictionalized account of his brother’s horrific accident in childhood.
Of course, “grief,” “suffering” and “trauma” are words Li would never touch. It’s shopworn language to her, cliché. “Can one’s intelligence rely entirely on the public language; can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?” she wrote in her memoir. Even her decision to write in English instead of Chinese emerges from this desire to communicate as truthfully as possible: “English is my private language. Every word has to be pondered over before it becomes my word.”
For Li, to apply her own language to suicide means to understand suicide as the most private of decisions, to address it without cheap sentiment or condemnation. “Calling Nikolai’s action inexplicable was like calling a migrant bird ending on a new continent lost,” the mother thinks to herself. “Who can say 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.”
At first, I found this statement confusing and evasive. Does “to enfold” mean to blandly excuse? And can’t “unfolding” — the act of delving, of analysis — be construed as a kind of love?
Then I remembered the orca. Last year, a grieving mother orca in the Pacific Northwest carried her dead calf on her head for more than 17 days and 1,000 miles. The world was transfixed — not purely out of pity, I suspect, but recognition. Who has not wanted to keep their dead close, even carry them, as proof of their pain? Recall the stage directions in “King Lear”: “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms.”
At first glance, this book seems constructed of very cerebral debates between mother and son — even the epigraph, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Argument,” includes the line: “argue argue argue with me.” But the arguments in the novel never build. They eddy. Nikolai picks a little at his mother; she accepts it, almost gratefully. As the title alerts us, this book takes place in a territory beyond reason, in all its connotations — beyond explanation or understanding. The mother does not require them. In the final reckoning, there is nothing she needs from Nikolai other than his company, his ghost; to carry him for a moment more, to keep the story going.
“We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words,” she writes. “Where else can we meet but in stories now?”