Words Fall Short of Grief

Review: 'Where Reasons End' by Yiyun Li

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February 23, 2019

There exist no great books about grief and mourning. Good books, yes, but even that class is small. Something about the loss of a loved one resists language, resists narration, resists plot. Something about death resists writing.

Still we keep trying. It's there in the oldest texts, when Gilgamesh tears his clothes and demands that the entire world—mountains, forests, wild animals—weep for his lost friend Enkidu. It's there in Book IV of the Confessions, when Augustine cries that he hates all the places in Carthage he used to go, because they no longer contain his dead companion. It's there in Tennyson's 1849 In Memoriam, and it's there in any number of Emily Dickinson's poems, from "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" to "I measure every Grief I meet." For that matter, it's there in Yiyun Li's new novel, Where Reasons End.

As a book about grieving, Where Reasons End belongs among the best ones, resting beside, say, Peter De Vries's 1961 The Blood of the Lamb, an unbearable novel that recounts the death of his 10-year-old daughter from leukemia. Or C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, also from 1961, a small and painful collection of essays written after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman.

Make no mistake: Where Reasons End is a very good book about grief, lightly fictionalizing Li's actual experiences after the suicide of her 16-year-old son. If you're going to read just one piece of serious new literature this winter, Where Reasons End should be that book.

But from the ancient Roman consolationes—Seneca's cooly philosophical De Consolatione ad Marciam, for example—we should have learned that grief refuses to be captured in words. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's semi-scientific On Death and Dying had already thinned dying to something clinical when it was published back in 1969, but an endless number of pop-psychology books have taken its account of the stages of awareness of the self dying and misapplied it to the experience of others dying—as though fear of our own death is the same as grief at the death of those we love. Kübler-Ross herself was sucked down into the phenomenon shortly before her death, with her name on a 2005 book called On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

At least Kübler-Ross was a reasonably intelligent observer. The general result of the modern genre is far worse. Lucy Hone's Resilient Grieving: Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy: The titles alone make the skin crawl.

What makes Where Reasons End a great book is that in many ways the topic is not death. At least, not exactly. We can read the novel simply as the story of a mother grieving. But more precisely, the novel tells the story of a writer grieving.

So, for example, while she recounts imaginary conversations with her son in the weeks after his death, Li relentlessly pursues the roots of English, the non-native tongue in which she writes. "I looked up the word suffer," as she explains. "It comes from sub, from below, and ferre, to bear." When her dead son tells her, "You’ll settle in sooner or later, even if it’s against your wish," she writes, "It occurred to me that I had never looked up the etymology of the word settle, so I did. I read it to him: from Old English . . . to seat, bring to rest, come to rest." She asks him, "Do you feel settled?" And he replies, "If you mean something sinking to the bottom, he said, yes, I feel quite settled. Sedimented." Along the way, the narrator seeks the origins of deadline and dead end. An interest in language dominates the book.

It proves, in fact, what the mother and son most share. The narrator of Where Reasons End, a Chinese-American novelist, is left unnamed. Her dead son was called Nikolai, although that was, she mentions, a name he chose for himself. If one had to describe the power of any true artist, it would be the ability to name things, to give true names. But the narrating novelist in Where Reasons End has come to the end of all her powers: the power of a mother to keep her child alive, the power of a writer to name, the power of an adult to take charge. What consolation are words, when a child dies? What consolation are adulthood and love?

The story advances through a series of imagined conversations with Nikolai, all of them taking place in a kind of empty space, somehow between the worlds of life and death. Much of what they do is reminisce. Nikolai's endless baking, for example. Her teaching him to knit as a kindness, though she had been taught by her mother to knit in a strange act of parental cruelty and dominance. His love for Les Misérables and inability to get through War and Peace. She tells him that the children's author Lemony Snicket wrote her a letter of consolation about her son, and he regrets that he's not still alive to boast about it to his childhood friends.

As you might expect from its title, Where Reasons End comes to no strong conclusion. With death, reasons end in every sense of the words reason and end. "A parent should never be a child's biographer," the narrator observes, and the conversations she imagines with her son spiral in and out of explicit awareness of the fact that he is dead. He had been a perfectionist in life, she realizes, and this contributed to his suicide: too easily hurt by human failings and his inability to achieve the perfection he supposed was promised by his intelligence, charm, and precociousness. But his perfectionism continues after death—in, for example, the cool voice of postmortal omnipotence into which he slips in his talks with his mother.

His perfectionism continues, too, in the cruelty with which he dissects his mother's prose: accusing her of becoming a bad writer, identifying the banal sentimentality to which she is tempted. "What's hurtful is life," she writes, and she wants us to know that she is aware of the line's gooeyness. "How can I teach myself to want to live?" "We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood," she writes, "and I’m doing it over again, this time by words." ("If you're protesting by becoming a bad writer, I would say it's highly unnecessary," the son points out. "Dying is highly unnecessary too," she snips in return.)

Even the key line in the book has this quality of being a little too easy. "Words fall short, yes," she observes, "but sometimes their shadows can reach the unspeakable." Still, that too is part—maybe the major part—of what the book has to tell us. There is no solution to grief. No answer. No true consolation. Just a kind of vile forgetting and a despicable letting go.

Published under: Book reviews