New Yorker fiction (Aug 30) – “The Science of Flight”

In this quietly grim story, I found reminders of people I’ve known who resembled its protagonist in being self-effacing and acquiescent individuals.

Over the years she had become accustomed to who she was in other people’s eyes: she knew she would be considered a loser by her Chinese acquaintances in America, a divorced woman toiling her life away in an animal-care facility, someone who had failed to make it … [but who] had been able to build a life out of her failures …

Raised in a harsh and judgmental family across two generations, Zichen becomes one of those folks we all know who work quietly in the background with little life to speak of outside the workplace. ‘A drone’ is often the label unkindly applied. This story offers a carefully prepared look into this oddly sad type of life where appearance counts more than substance, where the interpersonal scaffolding one puts up becomes more important than the actual life it obscures.

The failure of one generation to achieve a healthy place in the world sets the pace for the next to fail in a similar or even more ruinous manner — a tragic achievement as someone comes to maturity believing herself “a baby who should have remained unborn, a child with little merit and an unnerving manner”. My identity, she may be permitted to think, is less than one.

Where do you turn if no one has your back? If there’s no safety net, how far must you fall before finally stopping? I allowed myself to be misled by the title, not realizing until the end of the story that the word did not mean ‘flying’ as much as it meant ‘fleeing’ — the art and craft of being a lifelong cipher.

… she knew that in all stories she must be left out—the life she had made for herself was a life of flight, of discarding the inessential and the essential alike, making use of the stolen pieces and memories, retreating to the lost moments of other people’s lives.


Yiyun Li is the author of a collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Stories and a novel, The Vagrants — with a second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories, to be published in September. She is also a contributing editor at A Public Space, “an independent magazine of art and argument, fact and fiction … to give voice to the twenty-first century.”

(“Framework” from Pyca / cc by-nc)

UPDATE (Nov 2010): 20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker brings together the stories published during Summer 2010 to introduce “twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction.”


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