“And if there is another end beyond the dead end, it cannot be called dead, can it?”
In Yiyun Li’s novel Where Reasons End, an unnamed narrator converses with her teenage son, Nikolai, in the months following his death by suicide. This question, posed by the narrator, is one of many attempts by a grieving mother to make sense of losing her son by interrogating language itself. Throughout the book, she ruminates on the etymology of words such as grieve and patience, as if, by defining these terms, she can find meaning in her experience of them. She and Nikolai banter over word choice and flit in and out of shared memories. Nikolai, who is omniscient, reads her mind and responds to her thoughts; his mother wonders how much longer their conversation can last.
A stunning exploration of suffering and loss, Where Reasons End is made all the more wrenching by its real-life context. Li wrote of her own struggle with depression, as well as her two previous suicide attempts, in the 2017 memoir Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Once trained as an immunologist, she described depression as an “auto-immune disease” in which the mind “targets every feeling and thought it creates.” The premise of Where Reasons End was also drawn from her life: Less than a year after the publication of her memoir, Li’s 16-year-old son killed himself.
“I was almost you once,” the narrator of Where Reasons End tells her son. “And that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” A bridge between fiction and memoir, the novel offers a moving account of a parent’s attempt to understand and find expression for an unfathomable tragedy. As a work illustrating the potential for suicidal thoughts to pass from parent to child, the book also highlights a fraught public-health issue at a time when suicide rates across the United States are rising.
After someone dies by suicide, one of the first questions is often, “Why?” Public discussions about the subject can at times resemble a psychological autopsy, where people dissect the “clues” left behind in an attempt to find answers. As a pediatrics resident, I’ve seen how this preoccupation plays out in medicine and public health, where for every factor contributing to the problem, there is a potential intervention that can, and often does, minimize harm.
Given this context, one may be tempted to read Where Reasons End in search of the very answers denied by the title. Li’s narrator isn’t immune to the impulse to seek an explanation: She admits that “not knowing” what prompted her son’s death is “close to what people call a wound.” But just as the novel resists conventional narrative, Nikolai’s suicide is never analyzed or rationalized by the standard framework. There is no psychological autopsy. The dialogue between mother and son feels unending and timeless, and indeed, without focusing on the search for a reason, there can be no clear ending. Rejecting the formula that would typically provide “closure” after the death of a loved one is, it seems, Li’s point.
Where Reasons End fits into a broader conversation about art and media that depict depression and suicide. The risks of simply reading about suicide have been recognized for centuries. The novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in 1774, was blamed for a spike of suicides among young men across Europe. Since then, numerous studies have pointed to the contagion effect that depictions of suicide in fiction and nonfiction can have on people already vulnerable to self-harm. The risks may be particularly high for teenagers, who are frequently the target of media on this topic. Think of movies such as Dead Poets Society and The Virgin Suicides, and the recent book turned Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which drew widespread criticism for its irresponsible portrayal of a character who kills herself.
One complicating factor when it comes to creating art about suicide is the fact that many of the features that make for a “good story” are also those known to contribute to suicidal behaviors: heightened emotions, heroic or sentimental portrayals of suicidal characters, and, above all, depiction of the suicide itself. The worry—of public-health officials, researchers, doctors, and parents—is that when works embrace these elements, fiction might bleed into reality.
Li’s Where Reasons End is in a different category from many of its mass-media counterparts. The novel is also, without question, an exceptional piece of literature; Michael Schaub, writing for NPR, described it as “the rarest of things: a perfect book,” and the novelist Elizabeth McCracken called it “a masterpiece by a master.” The conversation between mother and son is poetic and philosophical, quiet and undemanding. In one passage, the narrator wonders, “Does one have to stay out of part of one’s own mind?” This prompts the following exchange:
If I’m the trespasser of my own mind I’ve acquitted myself, he said.
Then I shall acquit myself, too.
Don’t trespass in the first place, he said.
Too late, I said. To love is to trespass.
To live, too, he said. How can anyone not see it that way?
Here, fiction doesn’t just bleed into reality; it also gives life to the imaginary. The narrator, who is herself an author, writes her son back into existence by force of will, conjuring him into “a world made up by words, and words only. No images, no sounds.” The act of conjuring is familiar to her. “What I was doing was what I had always been doing,” the narrator thinks: “Writing stories.” As an author, the novel suggests, the narrator was a “parent” to a multitude of fictional characters. As a bereaved mother, she had only one recourse: to become the author of her child.
In its refusal to dwell on why, the book also offers a valuable counterpoint to the dominant narrative about suicide. In many media portrayals, finding a reason for someone’s suicide provides an ending to the story. Ultimately, this allows readers to disengage and move on. The result is that, after an initial outpouring of public support, interest in and attention to the problem tend to wane. Li’s portrayal of grief as something that doesn’t necessarily have a clear end point might be closer to real-life experience for many.
Yet Where Reasons End also suggests the narrator’s grim surrender to the inevitability of her son’s death—a notion that could contribute to destructive thought patterns for some readers. Early on, the narrator says, “Calling Nikolai’s action inexplicable was like calling a migrant bird ending on a new continent lost … Who can say the vagrant doesn’t have a reason to change the course of its flight?” Nikolai’s attitude toward his death is even more decisive. “I’m all clear now,” he tells his mother, “pure and perfect, just the way I want.” Later, his mother wonders, “Is it a fatal condition … for some people just being themselves?” The question hangs over the book, unanswered. Underlying these thoughts is the belief once expressed by Li at the height of her own depression: that suicide can seem like “an appropriate, even the only, option.”
Li’s novel arrives in a media landscape where the broader discourse about suicide is defined by a never-ending tension: between looking at and looking away, between feeling out the issue’s contours and recoiling from them. Fictional portrayals of suicide also exist in a middle ground, somewhere between art, entertainment, and, if we accept their potential for harm, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Of course, there is no right way to make art—and no simple way to produce “risk-free” art—about suicide. As an effort to paint a truthful picture of a mother’s grief, Where Reasons End occasionally indulges in a kind of fatalism, wondering whether this particular death was unavoidable. But the novel also takes the crucial step of dismantling a troubling trope in stories about suicide. Knowing she may never find all the right answers, Li’s narrator abandons that search. She writes her child back to life and, in doing so, responds to an act of destruction with an act of creation.