In a century rife with political upheaval, the literature of China’s expats largely reflects the times. Yiyun Li’s new novel Kinder Than Solitude is no exception. Yet, at its core, Li’s work probes the mystery of private lives and people. These intimate portraits familiarize one to what home, youth, and history have always been: inexplicable, precious, remorseless. “Theirs is not the immigrant struggle,” Li explains of her characters, two of whom have settled in America, “it’s everybody’s struggle – the struggle with the past, with painful history they can’t understand.” For me, this effect is heightened by our shared nationality, but Li’s deeply rendered characters may resonant with any willing reader.
Both of Li’s novels—The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude—begin with the death of a politically radical woman, but in tone they could not be more different. In the earlier book, a public execution stirs up the town of Muddy River, with devastating effects. In the latter, at the end of a twenty-year deterioration following her mysterious poisoning, Shaoai’s remains are cremated in a sterile facility in the outskirts of Beijing. Boyang, awaiting his friend’s ashes, thinks: “The decaying that had dragged on for too long had only turned tragedy into nuisance; death, when it strikes, better completes its annihilating act on the first try.” In this later work, honed by irony and a shade of cynicism, Li’s characteristic bleakness is even sharper than before.
Though devoid of emotionality, Shaoai’s death and poisoning are the force that binds the characters inextricably; together they form a wheel holding untold weight that, at its center, is hollow. Lacking a true protagonist, the narrative vacillates between estranged childhood friends Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu—the last an orphan who comes to stay with Shaoai’s family. When Shaoai falls ill after drinking a cup of Tang mixed with a chemical stolen from Boyang’s mother’s laboratory, the others sequester themselves in a silence that is neither innocent nor guilty; the event brings them to the end of their youth to stand at the lip of a vast and consuming solitude. In the words of Boyang, “[Shaoai], of all people, would have made good use of a life.” The others, poisoned by proximity—and by shared responsibility—endeavor to save themselves from truly living.
Of the three, Boyang is the only one to remain in Beijing in adulthood, though the Beijing of their youth is quickly being consumed by money and its endless shiny developments. Surrounded by a generation of young people shockingly innocent of history—and especially young women interested in his “diamond bachelor” status—he laughs at himself and his girlfriend’s needy attentions. Though he does not say so, it is clear that nothing will surpass the passion of his youth. “Loyalty to the past,” Li writes, “is the foundation of a life one does not, by happenstance or will, end up living.” He helps Shaoai’s parents with her care, sending unanswered emails to the other two with the hope of a reunion, of something to affirm that the small incidences of the past, which have become so crucial to him, are real.
The city itself becomes a cipher for the ruthless amnesia of the new era, mirroring how material comforts become paramount to the victims of fate. The dark side of the economic boom is the contemporary equivalent of political crimes of the past. In characteristic obliqueness, Li allows her characters to voice the political and economic issues of their time—or tellingly avoid them altogether.
Neither Moran nor Ruyu can get far away enough from Beijing and their past. Both settle—alone after childless marriages—in the United States, starting over in the starkest sense. “To have an identity,” Li writes, “to be known – required one to possess an ego, yet so much more, too: a collection of people, a traceable track lining one place to another…” They reveal as little as they can about their past to their new friends and lovers, as if hoping fate were geography, and something one could escape.
Moran, comfortable in her repetitive job at a pharmaceutical company, goes through the motions of a respectable life. Having mastered “the skill of snuffing out each moment before releasing it to join the other passed moments,” she keeps everyone, even her parents, at arm’s length. As Li tells us, Moran Steeled by words from a Buddhist book (“to desire nothing is to have no vulnerability”), Moran detaches herself from “anything concerning the heart” with equal parts strength and fear.
Ruyu’s life is not much different, though one gets the feeling that, unlike with Moran, it is the life she would have led anyway. With Ruyu, the Buddhist teaching of desiring nothing has always been her modus operandi, though it did not come from a place of spirituality. Now in the San Francisco Bay Area, she works menial jobs and allows a passing closeness to form between herself and a married American couple—a pattern not so different from her friendship with Boyang and Ruyu—and becomes a spectator in their lives. The news of Shaoai’s death brings on a series of questions from her previously disinterested friends, and Ruyu soon realizes that no matter where, “One could never avoid having a history.”
Just as the characters cannot avoid their history, the book’s format reveals the same. We are shuttled between chapters of the gray, featureless present and a past vibrant in detail and feeling. The chapters—though discrete, always focusing on one character or time—mimic the effort of isolation and its impossibility.
The chapters set in 1989—the year of the Tiananmen Uprising—capture the months Ruyu first came into Beijing, and lives the of three friends. Forced to share her room and bed with the younger orphan girl, passionate Shaoai—the single politically engaged character—immediately dislikes her aloof demeanor. In Ruyu, Shaoai finds a worthy surrogate opponent for her righteous anger and thwarted ambitions. And Ruyu, equally indomitable, bears everything with scathing equanimity. After weeks of tension, Shaoai corners Ruyu on the subject of Tiananmen Square: “Have you found yourself thinking, for even a moment, about them or their families? …No, because those dead people have nothing to do with you; hence, they are nothing to you. Rest assured, you are not the only one… more and more people will choose that attitude now that a revolution has been crushed, but that does not exempt you.” Though directed at Ruyu, this accusation reaches far beyond China after the Tiananmen Massacre.
Is there a nobler alternative to placid compliance? About The Vagrants, Li has said, “If you think the book was a rebellion, the only rebellious thing… was that I really wanted to question that and say, ‘Really, there’s no hero.’” She explains that heroism has been a popular notion in China, but not one that writers can buy into, as it is “absolute,” allowing nothing of the “grayness of human beings.” There are few choices anyone can make without implicating themselves in something bigger and nastier than their own intentions. In Solitude especially, the crimes are committed in innocence and passivity, but at the end, no one is free of guilt or responsibility.
This novel—as with all post-hero novels—is a slow inward push towards coming to terms with what is missing. At times, I found myself frustrated by its plodding dreariness compounded by heavy writing and emotional flatness. What shines as lightness of touch can also be read as resorting to tropes, and pronouncements can be both keen and over-wrought. The stubbornness of Moran and Ruyu’s “self-quarantine” is meant to be equally admired and disdained; though one cannot truly empathize, one cannot pity them either, and that is precisely the point. “My characters are not activists in life but they protest by being solitary,” Li has told the Guardian. “They are very stubborn and don’t want to be center stage. I think loneliness is partly their choice and I really, really respect them for that choice.”
Years after Shaoai’s family moves away, a newlywed couple takes their old apartment, oblivious to its past. “By and by, however,” Li writes, incanting her warning, “the story would reach their ears, as in this city no secret would stay a secret, no history could be laid permanently to rest in peace.” At Solitude’s worst, the characters fall victim to science class dissection: “vividly portrayed,” but “cold and lifeless.” At her best, unflinching and unsentimental, Li conjures the freshly buried ghosts of an unspoken yet riveting history.