In Yiyun Li’s Latest, a Grieving Mother Desperately Clings to Memory

The award-winning author has been acclaimed for her haunting portrayals of the Communist China of her youth. Her latest, set in America, follows Lilia, a retiree who is annotating the posthumously published diaries of a former lover. (He gets a lot wrong, as you might imagine.) But as Li began delving into Lilia’s past — how, at 44, she lost a child to suicide — she abruptly and inexplicably abandoned the project.

At the time, Li was 44 herself. Shortly after, in an appalling coincidence, her own child — her 16-year-old son, Vincent — killed himself, in 2017.

“Was I writing to prepare myself?” Li has wondered aloud in interviews. At first, she did not return to “Must I Go.” She not only shelved the novel but, in dramatic fashion, dismantled her own style. For her, the pleasure in writing had always come from precision and revision — unsurprising perhaps, for a mathematical prodigy who had once trained as an immunologist. In the months following her son’s death, Li wrote “Where Reasons End” in one furious draft.

That novel is a series of ragged, recursive conversations between a mother and the ghost of her dead son — shockingly autobiographical for a writer so famously leery of self-disclosure. She could scarcely abide the pronoun “I,” she wrote in her memoir, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” itself a masterpiece of reticence, with its oblique depictions of the writer’s own history of suicide attempts and hospitalizations.

No word, no notion in Li’s work or life seems as necessary or as prized as privacy. It even governed her choice of language. She mastered and adopted English in her 20s, drawn to the idea of working in a tongue she could imagine was hers alone, untainted by personal history or the Communist Party’s degradation of language. “What marks our era,” a character in her first novel, “The Vagrants,” says, “is the moaning of our bones crushed beneath the weight of empty words.”

Now, Li has finally published “Must I Go,” a book that was scarily prescient. What does Lilia, that other grieving mother, tell us? “I haven’t stopped arguing with Lucy for 37 years,” she writes of her dead daughter. “Everything in my life is a part of that long argument.”

There’s an echo of the epigraph from “Where Reasons End,” a line from Elizabeth Bishop: “Argue argue argue with me.” The books bleed into each other. Their titles could run together in a single despairing sentence, a mission statement of sorts: Where reasons end, must I go. Where the previous book is stripped down, a bundle of exposed nerves, “Must I Go” is upholstered with the nested narratives, intricate back stories and details of a historical novel. For all their differences, their concerns are knotted together. They reach into realms that the author and characters feel are unspeakable: What is this perplexing obligation to endure? What are the limits and consolations of language? What is the self that can survive the death of a beloved child? Do we still call that existence life?

They are among the loneliest books I’ve ever read — if they are merely books. At times they seem more like ruins; the chipped sentences and broken structures let you see all the devastated, discarded certainties.

“I am writing with my burnt hand about the nature of fire,” the novelist Ingeborg Bachmann once wrote. With Li too, there is that feeling — her books are documents of survival but they bear wounds as a body might.

“Must I Go” is less immediately autobiographical, although there are little hints scattered throughout: The echoes of Li’s own name in “Lilia,” to say nothing of the character’s unfortunate, heavy-handed last name: “Imbody.” Her lover Roland’s middle name belongs to Li’s son. They are small sparks of continuity and connection in an expansive plot — or so it first seems.

Lilia has led a full life. She married three times and outlived all three husbands. She bore five children, buried one (Lucy) and raised Lucy’s child, Katherine, as her own. When we meet Lilia, she is readying a version of Roland’s diaries to present to Katherine (Roland was Lucy’s father), accompanied by a crippling amount of life advice. Much of the action of the book is just this: Lilia repetitively, even compulsively explaining to Katherine, and by extension the reader, her philosophy of survival, a harsh and doughty stoicism.

Little happens, but I’ve always found the openness, the near shapelessness of Li’s work to be part of its beauty. Her characters are never coerced; they are patiently observed, they are allowed to live, allowed to disappoint.

The core of “Must I Go” is the same as that of “Where Reasons End”: Again, we see a mother desperately trying to prolong her conversation with the dead, to keep her child close. The new book is bloated and unwieldy, however; it lacks the blunt power of its predecessor, which was stark and swift, flensed of artifice. There is a strange feeling of watching Li retreating into a form and narrative structure she has outgrown and outpaced.

There is an image that has always haunted me from Li’s early work. In the short story “Kindness,” a young girl buys a small chick from the market. It gets sick and dies. The girl cannot accept its death. She goes to the kitchen, cracks open an egg and drains it. She tries to squash the dead chick into the empty shell. Begin again, begin again, I imagine her thinking. Let’s start again. So too in these narratives, we feel these desperate resurrections, this attempt to return to the beginning. What did I miss with you? Where did I go wrong? the mothers wonder. It’s worth noting that the title of this new novel is taken from Roland’s diaries; it’s the one question the mothers don’t ask. They sermonize and theorize, lecture and filibuster. Don’t go just yet; let’s start again. Lilia talks and talks — to Lucy, to Katherine. And then, one day, as an old woman, she hears someone suddenly mention her daughter’s name — “Lucy? Isn’t she dead?” She opens her mouth and no words come.


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