Yiyun Li’s characters have no past; they simply exist in the present, all racing toward a bleak destiny. Her writing is minimal, yet packed with detail. At times, it feels like she is reporting in the manner of a journalist; at others she teeters on the verge of lyricism, often walking this line within a single paragraph. In “Sweeping Past,” one of the nine stories collected in her third book, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, a group of friends in communist China decide to become “sworn sisters” and have their photograph taken. “They were in their best outfits,” Ms. Li writes, “moon-white blouses with bows of the same color tied on the ends of their braids, pants with soft-coloured floral prints. As innocent as new blossoms, unaware of the time sweeping past like a river.” If her characters have no past, they also have no future: “Sweeping Past” dissolves into death–the photographer is eventually executed as a capitalist spy for using German-made cameras–and, as in many of Ms. Li’s stories, everyone ends up alone.
Loneliness is the raison d’être for Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. “I don’t have much feeling about most people,” says Moyan, the narrator and heroine of “Kindness,” the volume’s centerpiece. Moyan, who spent a year of her youth in an army camp in central China, is a lonely teacher with a penchant for Dickens and Lawrence. The story is in dialogue with both authors. As Moyan reads their works, her own life transpires as if in response. “I do not love my job or my students,” she admits. “I pity them more than I appreciate them, as I can see where they are heading in their lives.” This totalizing pessimism brings to mind both Dickens’ devaluing of people in favor of objects and Lawrence’s cynicism, as stated in “The Princess”: “People don’t know what they are doing and saying. They chatter-chatter, and they hurt one another, and they hurt themselves very often, till they cry.”
The execution announcements posted around the Beijing of her youth inspired Li’s fiction.
Moyan resists her very existence on the page. Her misery acts like a virus, assaulting her story until her essential loneliness is all that is left. For all of the story’s preoccupations with Dickens and Lawrence, Moyan has more in common with the title character of Beckett’s Molloy, existing to “speak of the things that are left,” as Beckett wrote in that novel, living merely to “finish dying.” And yet the power of “Kindness” is that while the story grapples with some of literature’s larger recurring themes–loneliness, helplessness, the cruelty of people–no detail is left unexamined; Ms. Li writes Beckett with the specificity of Dickens. Indeed Ms. Li, who came to America in 1996 to pursue a Ph.D. in biology only to switch careers unexpectedly, has a scientific kind of style. “Kindness” places a single sentence of Lawrence’s, “she had no great desire to live,” under a microscope, scrutinizing it until all the reasons for such a thought are glaringly visible.
Ms. Li’s collection is filled with the conflict, and ultimate harmony, between the expansive and the miniscule. “A Man like Him” follows an old curmudgeonly bachelor, who on the surface appears to be nothing but a cranky would-be patriarch, wallowing in missed chances. “I have nothing to say about this world,” is his refrain, inherited from his mother. Beneath the misanthropic irritability, however, is a man looking for a companion–and human connection–at all costs.
In the brilliant story “House Fire,” six old women become private detectives-for-hire, discovering indiscretions in the marriages of others. They seem filled with doubt over relationships between men and women–a result of a lifetime’s worth of wrongs inflicted upon them–only in the end to advise a young man who seeks their expertise to trust his wife: “If you suspect a ghost is sitting next to your pillow, the ghost will always be there.” In the devastating “Souvenir,” an unmarried woman buys a pack of condoms at a shop in China, as the judgmental glare of the store’s employees and patrons monitors her, cursing her supposed promiscuity. They do not realize that her boyfriend was beaten nearly to death during a protest, presumably Tiananmen Square, that he is now bedridden and that the condoms will remain unwrapped.
The 38-year-old Ms. Li grew up in a two-room apartment in Beijing with her mother, father, grandfather and sister. During her youth, in the late 1970s, the shadow of Mao Zedong still loomed over a fearful country, as executions of counterrevolutionaries steadily climbed. The execution announcements posted around the city were her reading material. Jumbles of legal jargon, basic personal statistics like age and gender, and stark descriptions of crimes, they must have read to Ms. Li like parables: “Counterrevolutionary Gu Shan, female, twenty-eight, was sentenced to death, with all political rights deprived.” Of her first novel, The Vagrants, Ms. Li said, “It is my job as a writer to re-imagine what was not given in those death announcements.” She did so, in a series of subtly interconnected vignettes as direct, skeletal and potent as the announcements themselves.
The novel put forth an often disturbing vision of how a small village copes with death and the travails of history, but the short-story form is Ms. Li’s true strength. If The Vagrants read like a series of intertwined short stories all centered around a common place, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl applies a structural revision to the art of the short story. The sense conveyed by the stories’ connections is less that of reading a novel than of walking through some lonely city at night, overhearing bits of speech and glimpsing scenes along the way. Ms. Li thrusts her readers into a scene with either no sense of a character’s past or, through broad, sweeping strokes, packs a novel’s worth of backstory into a single sentence: “He was raised by his mother alone, as she was by her father,” Ms. Li writes of a doomed blind date in the title story.
There is no middle ground in Ms. Li’s writing, only extremes. The result is both linear and fractured–every story relates to what comes before and after but is also self-contained. In each, Ms. Li works through a contradiction she has created for herself, one that dominates her writing: Her characters are united in their solitude. “They were lonely and sad people,” she writes at the end of the title story, “and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.” Nothing, not even adoring readers, will make them any less alone, but they have each other.