Yiyun Li | Where Reasons End | Penguin Books: £12.99
Whether writing wedding vows or eulogies, there are certain things that we struggle to express in words. “You always say words fall short,” says Nikolai, the 16 year old son of the narrator in Yiyun Li’s latest novel, Where Reasons End. He is speaking to his mother a few weeks after taking his own life. Later in their book-length conversation, the mother says that we “feel at a loss for words when they can’t do fully what we want them too.” She wants words that can fully describe grief. In a “personal war” with cliché, she notes that there “is no good language when it comes to the unspeakable […] There is no precision, no originality, no perfection.” Where Reasons End is an attempt at finding a language for the unspeakable.
Early on, the mother states that she is “a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy.” This is as grand a statement made in this quiet book, but still, the narrator feels the need to unpack each “cliché” in it, going on to define “grieve,” “explicate” and “tragedy”:
Grieve: from Latin gravare, to burden, and gravis, grave, heavy.
What kind of mother would consider it a burden to live in the vacancy
left by a child? Explicate: from Latin ex (out) + plicare (fold), to unfold. But
calling Nikolai’s action inexplicable was like calling a migrant bird ending
on a new continent lost. Who can say the vagrant doesn’t have a reason
to change the course of its flight? Nothing inexplicable for me—only I didn’t
want to explain: A mother’s job is to enfold not unfold.
Here we see the two ways that language works in the novel. On one hand, there is a scientific desire to name and define; the narrator repeatedly turns to the dictionary in a search for meaning. When no stable meaning is found in certain words —“suffering, I thought, was a word that no longer held a definition in my dictionary”— Li gives flight to more poetic images, to birds, to trees.
The novel takes its name from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘Arguments’. In the first stanza of the poem, Bishop writes “argue argue argue with me / endlessly / neither proving you less wanted nor less dear.” The novel is structured as a dialogue between a mother and her dead teenage son (split up into 16 chapters), but I would say this dialogue is, in Bishop’s sense of the word, more of an argument.
They don’t argue about serious things —why he took his life say— but they do argue in a way a ‘generic’ child and a mother might, about unimportant things. The conversation is intellectual, they argue about nouns and adjectives, talk about Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. Nikolai is precocious, quick-witted, and pitted against his weary mother, he wins every argument. The conversation-structure of the novel reminded me of Plato’s Dialogues, in which he imagines (or remembers) the words of his dead teacher Socrates. Nikolai is a modern-day mock-Socrates, and maybe, like Plato, Li gives life to him in words so that everyone can see his ideas and witness his cleverness, despite his death.
“What pompous nonsense,” Nikolai says if ever his mother starts to sound profound. “I hate it when you try to sound smart.” When I heard about the suicide of Li’s 16 year old son in 2017, and that she was writing a novel about it, the last thing I thought it would be was funny. To “many people [Nikolai has] become a fact. Hard to accept. Impossible to understand.” But to his mother, he is still somewhat alive, a smart, laughing ghost.
It is strange to say in a book review, but almost the entire novel takes place in words, or as the mother puts it, “in this world of ours, made by words.” There is little action; we spend the novel suspended in dialogue. Once in a while, the mother talks about the changing seasons outside, the tree through her window— perhaps calling back to another Bishop poem, ‘To a Tree’, written when Bishop was 16. Nikolai was a poet before he died, and his mother is a writer, so perhaps it is obvious that they would “look for some depth in words when [they] can’t find it in the three-dimensional world.”
The “world of words” in Where Reasons End is small— Li’s semantic field is a cramped room. The narrator continually notes that her “dictionary is limited.” The effect of this limitation is that certain words are repeated throughout the novel, and with each repetition, they gain meaning, they roll on, growing, like a ball of snow down a hill. “Every time [Nikolai says] something [the narrator has] to turn to the dictionary”— words to her are “pregnant with meanings.”
The novel seems to be a reaction against the notion that words fail to express the severity of certain situations. This failure of expression is what Brian Eno, in his book A Year With Swollen Appendices, called:
the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits
and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something
too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the
cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat
that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white,
is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned
to record them.
Li pushes the medium of language to its limits to contain the emotional nuances of a parent grieving their child’s suicide. In clear and precise prose, I think she gets as close as you can get, but there are still hints of that “cracked voice”, of language just not being enough. In the mother’s words, as she “imagine[s] writing a letter of condolence”: “I know my words are not enough to express my devastation at your loss and my words will not do much to alleviate your pain, but these words are all I have.”
by Gurnaik Johal