The novel Where Reasons End was written, as many people know by now, in the year after the suicide of the author’s sixteen-year-old son, Vincent Kean Li. Noting tonal and stylistic departures from her previous works, reviewers have praised it for reworking the novelistic form to accommodate the rhythms and temporalities of grief. Where Reasons End does read quite differently than Li’s first novel, her short-story collections, and her most recent work, a memoir written in the literary critical vein. It reads oddly and it doesn’t exactly, at first glance, read very well. Perhaps for fear of (cultural) insensitivity reviewers have not mentioned the proximity of the writing to abstract philosophizing and sentimental drivel. Li has been writing from within the idioms of melodrama and cliché in order to study them for some time now, and Where Reasons End is no different. We have finite lexical resources for emotional experience; thought relies on hackneyed expressions that sit close to the language of propaganda, the discernment and dissection of which become our first lessons in critical intelligence.
A better description of Where Reasons End, I think, is this: a rigorous philosophy keyed to the overlap between the profound and the non-profound, to the ordinary uses of language that can access this difference, and to the dividends all of this pays to love. A grieving mother and her departed son, Nikolai, stage an “ancient debate,” ancient in the sense of asking the “big questions” of human existence in a manner that has no fixed point on which to rest, and that often sends up real answers around which grow a thicket of clichés both the mother and the son prune and cultivate. The book parks thought in “cliché-land,” as the mother puts it, amid the trite, the platitudinous, the sentimental, the truistic, and the reductive, refusing to leave even after true things have been said.
Li’s test begins in the title. Idiomatically, where reasons end madness begins. In its very title, then, the book recalls familiar expressions—an ending is another beginning, the end of one’s wits, the end of the line—and the conventional gambits used to begin conversations about grieving: Does the death of a child occasion a transition, or is it a dead end? Can you discern the line between reason and madness? What if we cannot let go? Are ghosts real?
The surprise of Where Reasons End is its suggestion that these are perhaps not very interesting questions at all. Are there better questions to ask? This novel offers a panoply to choose from. For example, responding to her son’s editorial complaints about her overuse of clichés the mother asks, “What if life could be saved by clichés?”—by which she means: grief might be better endured if anchored in things that go evenly into their concepts. Clichés pass emotions into allegories, a plane of “today and today and today and today” where you’re freed up to reconsider ideas that under normal circumstances you are told to out-think. Elsewhere, to the mother’s well-worn observation that the passage of time makes one sentimental, the son asks, “What happens to sentimental when you take time out of it?” When she cannot quite make the conceptual turn—“What?”—he reveals the language game: “time is in the middle of sentimental.”
Banter between parents and their teenagers frequently looks like this: the back and forth of aperçus, animadversions, and yes, even pseudo-profundity. A chapter begins, for example, with “How are you today? I said. It was an inane question but I was too sad to look for a better opening.” The attenuated question creates an opening for the son, who suggests asking “Who are you today?” instead. A choreography of thought ensues in which familiar terms reattach to new premises. The son calls out the mother for the statement “Many things slipped away like sand or water,” but by the time they are finished talking the quicksand simile is estranged. Analogies to sand and water “are [only] clichés if you use them to describe time.” Each spoken moment aims to minimally alter unoriginal expressions of grief to new effects:
What could I catch on this gray, wet morning? Not the smile on your face, not the light in your eyes, not a blue cat, not a purple penguin, not dust in the wind, not a thought whispering in your ears, so loud that it had drowned out all the music of the world.
Li is playing a risky game, that of seeming naïvely nonsensical, cloying, and limited in her vocabulary—writerly weaknesses that readers might fear to point out because they align with stereotypes of cultural difference and of grieving mothers. Contextless exchanges parse lines like these: “Sadness one can live with, but sadness is a helpless garrison against the blindness of tragedy”; “Time is like money. Don’t get into debt by spending what you don’t have,” and so forth. Readers may hesitantly conjure various questions: Does the stacking of proverbs seem . . . Chinese? Are these expressions . . . characteristic of non-native speakers? Can you judge the writing of those experiencing grief?
All of these questions are even more tempting to ask given that the novel reads like a primer, a long lesson in words and word usage. The mother mistakes LOL for “Lots of Love” and ABC (American Born Chinese) for Able Baker Charlie. Her son, himself a writer and wordsmith, negotiates with his mother the solecisms, non-idiomatic expressions, and general off-ness that characterize the speaking and writing habits of those with a late-life introduction to another language. Instead of resting the mother’s entire case in these cultural and generational differences, Li builds these typical usage problems into stronger, more original insights. Her cultural references evince a remarkable honesty about the ways many Asian immigrants, especially of a particular age group, are actually introduced to Western culture—through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Phantom of the Opera and Elton John’s threnody “Candle in the Wind,” for example. The phrase “wishing you were somehow here again,” also the title of one of the chapters, is objectively sad and is echoed later in a note Nikolai’s preschool teacher had written from California: “Just wish I could see him again. When you come back please call me so we can cry together. I am so sad. I thought we prepared him to live.” The mother recalls a song her son used to sing about a little donkey who is spared abuse with “tears heavy behind [her] eyelids.” The sadness is unaffected here, even existentially middlebrow.
Philosophical debates can also have diminishing returns, and the difference (in terms of lexical and grammatical variation) between nailing an idea and missing it clean is nearly imperceptible. When Nikolai sends up a self-indulgent thought by showing its terms to be “imaginary,” the mother replies that “Imagination is a kite flown by reality. . . . Imagination doesn’t stand a chance if you cut the line held by reality.” Later, Nikolai stops an “In our time” speech: “I hope you’re not going to speak like many parents. In our time, as though time bothers to make itself different for each generation.” One has to read all of it to see how a thought is finally purified into originality after many back-and-forths—“You’re going to say” / “No that’s not what I meant to say.”
Where Reasons End belongs more in an older tradition of grieving—Emerson’s essays and journal entries on the death of his son Waldo, for example, or Dickinson’s “I measure every Grief I meet” and “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”—rather than, for instance, memoirs written after Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking—studies of tristesse using longer exposures to detail its rich interior life. In this novel stock phrases are turned in highly abstract conversations; as in the case of Emerson and Dickinson, misreadings easily arise as proverbial lines are lifted out to represent the whole. The careful reader feels comprehension to be difficult but, pressed to say why, cannot find much out of the ordinary at the level of diction.
Sometimes chapters and conversations in this novel end on a profound note; sometimes they do not. Such a dynamic actively works against the mourning genre’s natural tendency to want to make the best of things, to moralize progression. The mother assures her son that she “would be the last person to write a self-help book,” and this wordplay ensues:
Wouldn’t a non-self-help book be more interesting?
A book about not helping oneself? I asked. A self-sabotaging book?
A book about helping non-selves, he said. Like me.
She mistakes the meaning of his retort because there is a defect in the genre of the self-help. “Helping you with what?” she asks him, implicitly because you are dead. The son’s response makes a bid for the democratic distribution of philosophy: “What’s new to you is new to me too. How do I know what’s a right way, or a good way, or a healthy way, or a mindful way to be now?” The philosophical question of how you should be does not end when your life ends; at least, this is a good premise to work from if you cannot muster anything better to ask and yet wish to speak to someone forever. The defamiliarization of language, usually associated with early childhood, when language has not yet become habituated, feels closer to the genre of speaking to the dead.
Thinking and being stuck in a conversation with a dead person are the same things in this book. For this reason, Where Reasons End is only about madness and grief in the way that Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Argument,” from whence the title is taken, is about madness and grief. In “Argument” two allegorical figures, Days and Distance, come between the speaker and the one who is longed for. The former’s plea in the poem is incredibly sad: “argue argue argue with me / endlessly / neither proving you less wanted or less dear.” Li’s book continues Bishop’s pleading: please argue with me, please inhabit the positions that will sustain this conversation forever. Death deprives the conversation of teleology: it cannot graduate from banter, and that is a good thing.
Where Reasons End. By Yiyun Li. New York: Random House, 2019. 170 pp. $16.50, paper.