Having been so enthralled by MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Yiyun Li‘s debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, then her novel, The Vagrants, I admit I held off on this, her latest collection, for over a year. I seem to have difficulty immediately reading the newest book of certain much-admired authors knowing that future titles will mean a long, long wait. But then I’ve been on a short story roll this past week … so how could I resist a genius any longer?
The best of this collection of nine bookend the book. The first,”Kindness,” more novella than short story, is a wrenching look into the sparse life of 41-year-old Moyan, who lives alone without a single attachment left in the world. The funeral announcement of her former unit commander – a woman just a few years her senior who Moyan has not seen in over two decades – triggers distant memories of her disconnected past: her mismatched parents, the older woman who introduced her to the world of English novels, the married flutist, the young girls in her work unit, and even the now-dead Lieutenant Wei who once asked, “‘Why are you unhappy … Tell me, how can we make you happy?’” Decades later, such questions remain unanswered.
In the eponymous final story, appearances are at jarring odds with reality. The “gold boy” and “emerald girl” who populate a long-ago wedding picture with “their matching good looks,” represent anything but a happy union. Forty-plus years later, three isolated souls find their lives intertwined: the ‘emerald girl’-wife who wished for her own widowhood, her single son who cannot live his life openly, and the chosen daughter-in-law who keeps herself apart even from her widower father who raised her. Together, the leftover trio “would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”
In a world crowded with so many billions, loneliness is the one somber detail exquisitely, painstakingly woven throughout Li’s stories. Everyday lives continue, connections fray and disappear, individuals are ignored and become lost … little by little, distance and isolation become the absolute norm.
From the old man who never married, to the couple who lost one daughter and devise an elaborate plan to have another, to an older woman who shelters suffering younger women and girls, to a group of six older women who ferret out cheating husbands, Li’s stories haunt and elucidate, giving permanent space to the overlooked, the forgotten who in their own longing ways try again and again to connect.