Yiyun Li has said on several occasions that she doesn’t consider herself a political writer. But Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the second of The Story Prize finalists we’re looking at this month, stretches the definition just a bit. This collection, her third published work, offers a strong rendering of a particular place and time without resorting to analysis or sweeping generalization, and with that comes a sophisticated kind of commentary. Not one of the book’s characters claims to speak for his or her cultural moment, yet taken all together they coalesce into a portrait of a mood that’s very much born of post-Cultural Revolution China.
Li’s people are distrustful of contracts both legal and unwritten—“Love leaves one in debt,” advises a woman’s instructor. Living in the wake of a regime that could demote a college professor to toilet cleaner overnight, they are circumspect and wary of reaching out, and therefore often lonely—like William Trevor, whom Li has cited as an influence, she is finely attuned to the many forms of isolation we impose on ourselves. And she takes a long look at loneliness’ flip side, the impulse to collect souls—by adoption, by mentoring, by offering a better life—a fitting line of inquiry for a writer.
The book’s opening novella probably best embodies all these contradictions. Given room to explore by virtue of its length, “Kindness” paints a wonderfully subtle picture of a woman who has made it her life’s work to insulate herself. Growing up with parents whose marriage she sees as a transaction—a mentally unstable mother who spends her days wandering and reading romance novels in bed, cared for by a much older husband who wouldn’t have married otherwise—she wants, more than anything, to avoid emotional indebtedness. And yet she attracts an older teacher who introduces her to Western literature, a female platoon leader who reaches out during her year of mandatory army conscription, and other small instances of kindness that she pushes away even as it clearly hurts her. Li’s writing is low-key, never obvious, but her characterization is so exact it constantly takes you by surprise:
I did not write to thank Lieutenant Wei for sending the suitcase, nor did I reply, a few months later, when she sent another letter, saying that she and the other two platoon officers had been officially invited to visit my college, and she would love to see me in my city. After that there was one more letter, and then a wedding invitation, and now, twenty years later, a funeral notice. Professor Shan would have approved of my silence, though I wonder if she was wrong to think that without love one can be free…. Lieutenant Wei’s persistence in seeking my friendship seemed to come from the same desire as Professor Shan’s making me a disciple. Both women had set their hearts on making a new person out of me.
This light touch is evident all through Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Li is comfortable with ambiguity, and her compassion for difficult characters shines through. In “A Man Like Him,” teacher Fei—summed up in one aching sentence, “six years since he retired as an art teacher, nearly forty since he last painted out of free will”—extends his hand to a man who has been publicly castigated for infidelity. Fei imagines him be a fellow misunderstood soul, but over the course of a brief meal, in just a few pages, Li shows us the difference a few degrees of wrongness can make.
Mrs. Jin, the calculating heroine of “The Proprietress,” collects women in need as they pass through her general store across the road from the county jail. The cast is worthy of a Flannery O’Connor story, ranging from a pair of unruly but angelic 6-year-old twins to the beautiful Susu, who inadvertently sets off the media with her request to be inseminated by her husband on death row, to Granny, who’s forgotten that Mrs. Jin’s father helped execute her husband years ago. Mrs. Jin is quite clear in her intentions: She wants to mold these women and make them her own. But as her tale progresses she grows complex in our eyes, in small meaningful ways, and nothing is as simple as it initially seems.
Each story unfolds in layers this way, and every character is both more and less than they appear to be at first. They are all manipulative, isolated, vulnerable; the sands of the past 40 years have shifted under their feet too swiftly for them to be still. In the title story, three people at loose ends—Hanfeng, recently returned to China from San Francisco, his mother, the imperious professor Dai, and her worshipful former student Siyu—hash out a mutually beneficial arrangement that manages to be heartbreaking and joyful at the same time.
Li is good at this: the difference between idealized and ideal, and the ways in which compromise can be an art. Whatever forces have shaped her, and in turn her characters, she has channeled into some elegant storytelling. There’s a tenacious subtext running through the book of the power of literature, not so much as a form of redemption as simply a medium of connection. Dance, too, has its place as a way to fit into a disorienting world of changing mores. In “House Fire,” Mrs. Mo, an elderly widow with her own secrets of loss, nicely sums up the struggle between watchfulness and longing that drives the heart of this bittersweet, lovely book:
She had discovered dancing late in her life, and had been addicted to it ever since, whirling in her partner’s arm, their bodies touching each other in the most innocently erotic way. It was not a simple task to maintain intimacy with another human being by the mere touch of bodies, and to accomplish it she needed total concentration to keep her soul beyond the reach of the large and small flames of all the passions in this treacherous world.