Telling stories to bury the dead: Yiyun Li’s novel about the deepest grief
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Yiyun Li, born and raised in China, immigrated to the United States at 22 to study immunology at the University of Iowa. After she took her first writing course, she decided to become a novelist writing in her second language, English. “Writing in English is a personal choice,” Li has said. “It feels natural to me. When it feels natural, you don’t question it, you don’t analyze it.”
However, she’s also written that in English, “every word has to be pondered over before it becomes my word.” Li may not mean to sound self-contradictory; writing is a deliberative act in any language. But there is a gap between “natural” and “pondered” that piques a reader’s curiosity.
It’s in that gap where Yiyun Li does her best work, in the questioning place between a thing that comes naturally to her — storytelling — and a thing that she ponders, which lately is the nature of suicide. Her new novel, “Must I Go,” is narrated by a woman named Lilia Liska whose eventful life (three marriages, five children, many grandchildren) has been reduced to a trickle as she nears its end at a senior facility. Lilia’s sharp reminiscences are interspersed with the letters and diaries of her former lover, Roland Bouley, who fathered her eldest daughter, Lucy. Lucy took her own life at age 27.
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Li did not begin with suicide. Her first collection, 2005’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, ” and first novel, 2009’s “The Vagrants,” provided an honest and sometimes bleak view of China along its painful, protracted transition from Maoism to 21st century authoritarianism. For these and subsequent works she’s won honors ranging from the Whiting Award to a MacArthur grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Li’s next books, a memoir and a novel, went to darker, more personal territory. In the memoir, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You in Your Life,” she reveals her own attempts at suicide in the years she was writing her second novel, “Kinder Than Solitude.” “Where Reasons End,” though fiction, confronts an even harder truth: In 2017, Li’s son died by his own hand at age 16.
“Must I Go” examines suicide from a remarkably different perspective. It’s Li’s first novel in a wholly American setting, the California of the (mostly) 20th century, the American Century, in which deprivation and hardship could, for some, still lead to the good life. Not that Lilia ever led a life of hardship; her parents owned a restaurant-cum-dude-ranch that drew a VIP clientele. One of these is Bouley, who arrives as a U.N. observer and promptly deflowers teenage Lilia, conceiving Lucy.
Fortunately, genial Gilbert Murray agrees to marry Lilia, whom he knows is pregnant. But Lilia is good at hiding other things, even from the reader. Whenever she veers too close to her own feelings, she stops — and the next thing we read is another of Roland’s diary entries, most of which concern his lifelong pursuit of the beguiling actress Sidelle Ogden and his long marriage to his cousin Hetty. Toward the book’s end, these women’s fates will converge into a kind of closure — at least to Roland’s story.
As for Lilia’s story, it’s addressed to Lucy’s daughter Katherine, who often brings her own young daughter Iola to visit at the assisted-living facility. Lilia’s cutting remarks to her great-granddaughter echo what she might have heard as a child, remarks that led her into the arms of Roland when she was still a child herself. Through the device of Roland’s letters, Li helps us to understand that her protagonist’s delusions are really a form of self-protection. Whatever the traumas that marked her early life, the coup de grâce, which she circles ceaselessly, is the loss of Lucy.
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Lilia opines frequently on death. “When you’re closer to death, you’re expected to see less, hear less, and care less,” she says. “When you’re closer to death, you don’t need much of an excuse to play at being alive again.” Like her creator, Lilia lives in a gap — the gap between the brusque, buttoned-up woman she wants others to see and the childless mother she remains. Spying a memoir class offered at the facility, she scoffs, “[W]hat lengths do people go to to make themselves believe that they have lived a memorable life?” To Lilia, “All good lives are self-contained. All happiness, too. Who wants to pull open that drawer called life for others to see?”
Meanwhile, she rummages around in Roland’s drawer. At first she finds exactly what she’s looking for, evidence that he was a callow young man more concerned with playing women against each other than settling down with one. But in fact the deception was hers: Even as their relationship continued, in the form of brief encounters, she never told him he had a daughter.
While this strange yet compelling contrapuntal narrative unfolds slowly, readers will enjoy Lilia’s hard-won wisdom — which is Li’s — on subjects including the difference between hunger and appetite, the importance of “selfish and sensitive people,” bad jokes from Seneca and much more. She’ll talk about almost anything — even Lucy’s suicide — to avoid sharing much about Lucy alive, the Lucy that she holds closer to her heart than even her own stubborn agency.
Whereas Joan Didion wrote that we tell stories to live, Li delves into the ways our narratives bury the dead. Lilia Liska, traumatized, stubborn, conflicted, smart and deeply loving despite her best efforts to the contrary, is a kind of Scheherazade wooing herself to forgetfulness, trying to put to rest the memory of a man whose unacknowledged child died too soon, so that she can cherish the memory of that child by herself.
Yiyun Li, on the other hand, reminds us that repressing grief can bring its own trauma, the kind that no amount of resilience can overcome.
Must I Go
Random House: 368 pages, $28
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