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Yiyun Li


November 16, 2009

In this formidably accomplished and even more formidably humane story, Yiyun Li plants an extraordinary insight in the run-up to the revelation of a shocking experience. The insight does not seem to have much to do with the experience, but the two are fused in the story's final line, and the world seems freshly recreated. Recreating along rather bleak lines, to be sure, but fresh withal.

Li takes her time establishing the setting of her story — an effective introduction to an elusive woman. We learn over the course of several paragraphs that Suchen is a woman traveling alone in Idaho who has fallen into conversation with an American widower. Suchen is divorced and somewhat deracinated; she has abandoned her cottage in Los Angeles in the short term; in the long, she has cut her ties with her family in China, where something terrible happened to her when she was a girl — something terrible that said something terrible about her. The unflinching patience of the storytelling assures that we will find out what the terrible thing was in due course of time.

And we do: when she was thirteen, Suchen and five friends decided to kill themselves, by rowing out onto a lake, getting drunk, and drowning. In the event, Suchen couldn't do it: in the water, she grabbed an oar. But her friends drowned. She has been haunted by them ever since, the vessel of their persistence. In a magnificently daring introduction to the recounting of the trauma, we're told of its most lasting effect.

Suchen had often wondered how she and the five girls would have turned out if the others had not drowned. They would have drifted apart, she suspected, becoming wives and mothers, and if they had ever reunited they would have been too occupied with their earthly duties to let the memory of their scheme surface. Yet through their absence the girls had made themselves more present than anyone else in Suchen’s world, and she had lived not only for herself but for their unconsumed lives: when she sat in a movie theatre on a weekday afternoon, the tears she shed were not for the romance on the screen but for a love story that might have broken the heart of one of the girls; when she reluctantly mingled with strangers at a party, she was convincing the girls that they had not missed much in this life; at the farmers’ market, she picked up fruits with exotic names and fragrances because the girls had not heard of or tasted them in their small home town; when she was having sex with Lei, she watched them watch him with pity in their eyes, because only they knew that he would never be able to touch her the way their deaths had touched her.

We don't yet know how the girls drowned, but we've been given enough pieces to work out the nature of Suchen's present journey. She has abandoned not only her home in Los Angeles but the attempt to continue surviving the friends who cannot, in death, leave her in peace. When Suchen reports to us that "the girls had made themselves more present than anyone else" in her world, however, we are still mulling over what I have called the astonishing insight. In conversation, Walter has revealed that his late wife, shortly after she realized that her cancer would be terminal, asked for a divorce. He still has no idea why she did such a thing, but Suchen suspects that she knows. 

She imagined the wife watching Walter and herself aging, waiting to endure his death, aware that the solitude afterward would be enough of a compensation. Her illness must have come as a disappointment; life had not been lenient enough to let her keep her secret. Her desire to be alone while still alive must have ultimately trumped the guilt that came from making an incomprehensible request of a husband who would soon lose his wife.

Walter's wife wanted some time to herself. This interpretation is so unexpected, and yet so immediately plausible, that we feel for a moment that the entire heft of a faraway culture's traditions have been placed at the disposal of what might have been no more than this week's New Yorker story. In America, it is thought to be heartless of a dying woman to ask for a few months of freedom from her husband of many years. Walter's wife, at any rate, was unable (if Suchen is correct) to divulge her desire. She did not tell Walter why she wanted the divorce, and when he refused her request — thinking himself to be magnanimous — she let the matter drop. At the end of the story, Suchen — having inherited longer, more comprehensive traditions — reflects that she is glad that what she let drop was her ex-husband; had she died, as she now intends to die, while she was still married, then he would have been as puzzled as Walter. So "it had been good of her to let Lei go, that he would not become an old man seeking companionship among the strangers in the world."

It is impossible to give up hope for a reprieve, for a happy ending, for Suchen's future. But the implacability with which Yiyun Li presents the consequences of that long-ago pact among six friends makes it impossible for such hope to breathe. The gift that allows Suchen to peer into the heart of Walter's wife imposes grim consequences. For the moment, we protect ourselves with the sigh of satisfied customers: Yiyun Li has told a great story uncommonly well. That contentment wears off just as surely as Suchen's strength to survive.

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