Books May 2014

A Chekhov From China

Yiyun Li’s latest novel maps new extremes of loneliness.
Jillian Tamaki

Yiyun Li, born in Beijing in 1972, moved to Iowa in 1996 to pursue a doctorate in immunology. She got as far as a master’s of science and then, armed with a solid introduction to the body’s defense mechanisms, she changed course. In 2005, the same year she earned two M.F.A.s from the University of Iowa, in fiction and nonfiction writing, she published her first collection of stories, the prizewinning A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. There, and in a novel and another collection after that, Li revealed a rare gift for exploring her true interest: the soul’s defense mechanisms. For an imaginative chronicler of China’s emergence from a brutal century, there could hardly be a richer theme—or, Li’s new novel confirms, a more quietly terrifying one.

Li, whose pared-down prose and open-ended plots are infused with humane clarity, has predictably inspired comparison to Chekhov, the patron saint of medical interlopers in the realm of fiction. In pitch-perfect English, she has spent nearly a decade examining “the profound and perplexing loneliness in which every human heart dwells,” as she puts it in Kinder Than Solitude. Don’t let the title mislead you. Her work, often leavened by a mordant humor, hasn’t mellowed. Cruelty—inflicted or endured, or both—has skewed many of the difficult lives that have so far unfolded in Li’s pages. This time she probes further, exposing the soul’s unwittingly self-destructive powers.

Jarring change has always been the backdrop for her characters’ ordeals. In Li’s early stories, mostly set in a contemporary China on the rise, the privations of a terrible past are receding. So are the shibboleths of communal solidarity, social equality, and family loyalty. As the bold strike it rich and the restless leave for the United States, old and young are emotionally unmoored. Newly free of constraints, they are also forced to scrounge for any semblance of human connection. By Li’s second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010), the rewards have become ever more tenuous. “They would not make one another less sad,” she writes of the union cautiously forged by three characters in her title story, “but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

Cruelty—inflicted or endured— skews many of the difficult lives that unfold in Li’s pages.

A fear of betrayal makes her characters deeply wary, and Li’s first novel, The Vagrants (2009), is a reminder of the grim reasons why. The novel opens with the public execution of a young dissident in a provincial town hundreds of miles from Beijing in 1979. It proceeds to map a world in which nobody knows what slogan will be safe to swear by tomorrow, or whom to trust as an ally today. Anyone intent on survival rarely has much choice except to become a predator. Yet all of her characters—victims, betrayers, quiet resisters, and cruel schemers alike—can count on Li’s imperturbable empathy.

From the start, Li has aimed to do just what so many of her characters find it hard to contemplate even trying: she dares to establish intimacy with other selves in all their strangeness, exposing their vulnerability while taking great care not to exploit it. The result rarely leaves a reader feeling, as Li would say, less sad. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the bleakness of Kinder Than Solitude, which revolves around a young woman’s poisoning.

Li has said that she steeped herself in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (another in the pantheon of doctor-writers) when she first began thinking of a novel about a murder. But the crime at the heart of Kinder Than Solitude might elude even the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, who says, “I dabble with poisons a good deal.” What turns out to be toxic, in fact, is the unresolved murkiness: there are motives and suspicions everywhere, and no fatal act anywhere. Li has long been attentive to the many ways that fear and misery sap the impulse to take responsibility for others. The haunting insight of her new novel is that amorphous guilt can be just as dangerous, eroding any sense of responsibility to and for oneself.

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Ann Hulbert is the literary editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees coverage of books and culture.

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