'Gold Boy, Emerald Girl': Placid lives with deep drama beneath the surface

By Troy Jollimore
Thursday, November 25, 2010



By Yiyun Li

Random House. 221 pp. $25

Yiyun Li's characters, like the stories they inhabit, often seem at first glance quiet, modest and unassuming. These are people you might not notice if you passed them in the street; they are accustomed, in fact, to going unnoticed, and at times they barely seem to notice themselves. But the smallness of these lives is in part a matter of perspective, and there is considerable drama hidden beneath the placid surfaces they present to the world.

"I am a forty-one-year-old woman living by myself," begins the narrator of "Kindness," the long story that opens "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl." She resides in a one-bedroom flat in an old building on the outskirts of Beijing. "I have not married, and naturally have no children. I have few friends. . . . I teach mathematics in a third-tier middle school. I do not love my job or my students, but I have noticed that even the most meager attention I give to the students is returned by a few of them with respect and gratitude and sometimes inexplicable infatuation. I pity these children more than I appreciate them, as I can see where they are heading in their lives. It is a terrible thing, even for an indifferent person like me, to see the bleakness lurking in someone else's life."

It is typical of Li's characters to describe themselves as "indifferent," and if the circumstances of this woman's life strike us as somewhat sad, the tone of the passage makes clear that she expects no better. The stoicism she has adopted as a way of resisting despair has itself become a shroud, a barrier between her and her feelings about her life.

On the other hand, some of Li's characters seem genuinely uninterested in human company. The lovely title story introduces us to Professor Dai, a widow who seems to have no desire to remarry following the death of her husband.

"Professor Dai must miss her students these days," a young woman says. But the professor actually misses something else more: "the white skulls of mammals and birds on her office shelves, the drawers filled with scalpels and clamps and tweezers that she had cleaned and maintained with care, and the fact that she could mask her indifference to the human species with her devotion to animals." This story - possibly the strongest in the collection - builds slowly and gently to an ending that seems both unexpected and inevitable, concluding in a final sentence that is exquisite.

Li, the author of a novel called "The Vagrants" (2009) and a previous collection of stories, and the recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, likes to play with the tensions between still surfaces and deep waters. She sets up encounters between people who thoroughly misjudge and misunderstand each other, while giving the reader enough background information - at times, decades of back story - to perceive the depth of her characters' failure to empathize. Indeed, our inability to understand other people might be her central theme.

"Souvenir" describes an encounter between an elderly widower and a 22-year-old woman, both of whom go unnamed. He opens the conversation by saying, "You remind me of my wife when she was your age" - and we are immediately told that, while he has used this line with other young women, "he meant it more than any time before." He follows her into a drugstore but becomes disgusted when she tries to buy condoms, and his judgmental behavior is encouraged by the clerks. By this point, the reader knows more than any of these characters about the girl's background and the nature of her errand. Yet what we know does not make us automatically approve of her behavior; indeed, it does not lend itself to easy interpretation at all.

In Li's world, human beings remain mysterious even when their back stories are revealed, as in "Sweeping Past," in which an aging woman explains to her granddaughter the tragic reason she fell out with her two best friends from childhood. The world is an unpredictable and dangerous place, and the rare Li character who takes the risk of trusting someone could be punished or rewarded, as the protagonist of "Prison" discovers when she attempts to hire a surrogate mother in China.

No wonder, then, that so many of these characters find other people and life itself inscrutable and potentially dangerous; no wonder so many of them insist on turning away and congratulating themselves for doing so. "Indeed, he was a lucky man," one of them says of himself. "He had never married, so no one could accuse him of being an unfaithful husband or a bad father." To see the bleakness in other people's lives can be, as "Kindness" suggests, a terrible thing. But in the hands of a storyteller as gifted as Li, it can also be a moving and unforgettable experience.

Jollimore is the author of "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for 2006.

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