A parent’s folly, I thought, is to want to give a child what she does not have. A parent has to be quixotic. The word reminded me what I had forgotten all these weeks, that on the day Nikolai had died, when I had not known it would happen, I had been listening to Don Quixote on a long drive. I had been laughing to myself in the car. I had laughed at times since then, but that laughter in the car—quixotic—would never be mine again. [Does the “she” in the first sentence refer to the child or the parent? The narrator mentions Nikolai, so the answer is probably the parent. But if so, why parent and not mother? I’m interested in the push and pull between specific and general here.]
Are some days more special than others, or are we giving them names and granting them meaning because days are indifferent, and we try to wrangle a little love out of them as we tend to do with uncaring people?
Where should I go from here?
Oh you know you’re doing fine.
I didn’t know it. I wasn’t feeling fine. I had but one delusion, which I held on to with all my willpower: We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words.
A good tactic is to diversify your delusions, he said. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket kind of thing.
I couldn’t refrain from pointing out that he had used a cliché.
Whatever, he said.
Sorry, I said. Still, please enlighten me.
Oh, do what squirrels do. Dig a hole and store a handful of delusions there, and dig another one and store more. Some delusions are for today. Some are for tomorrow. Some take a few months to ripen. Keep them dry so they don’t get moldy. Keep them private so others don’t step on them by accident or dig them up and steal them. Be patient. Delayed gratification is the key to a successful life of delusions. And if you’re lucky, some delusions become self-seeded. Some even go wild like dandelions.
Are you making fun of me?
Indeed I am, he said. Nobody needs to be taught how to live under delusions. It’s like sleeping.
There is a condition called insomnia, I said.
Some representative passages from Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End (2019).
The narrator, a writer and a teacher, conducts a series of conversations with her oldest son, who has recently killed himself. These are interspersed with meditations, as in the first two examples. Over and over the two of them return to language, playing with it, acting as guardians of it (the contest over cliché here, for example).
This is a very sad book, but wise and even sometimes joyful, though a joy always on the verge of despair. You can see it in the narrator’s claim that she is giving life to her lost child, once again, but this time in words. The book wants to believe in this beautiful sentiment, but it also recognizes it as fatuous: a delusion. (And what about that “we” in her sentence? What does her husband, the boy’s father, think? This is one of the only times the narrator mentions him.) And yet delusions might be good things to live under, especially if they disseminate, no matter how much an even brilliant teenager derides the idea. For delusions are connected, Li suggests, to imagination to thinking, to the life of the mind. And the mind—even or especially a mind in distress—can go off in all sorts of directions. Which might be a way to counter the terrible reality that time can only go in one.
Speaking of terrible reality, the book’s composure is even more striking when you find out that, like her narrator, Li had a teenage son who killed himself.
A couple of years ago I read one or two of Li’s early story collections. I found them uneven, sometimes exciting, sometimes too careful. She’s made the quite the leap in the intervening years, and I’ll be seeking out the books I missed.
This sounds like it might be too difficult to read for any parent. I like your approach to it through fragments and samples: it avoids turning it into something that sounds more straightforward than it seems to be.
Thanks, Rohan, that’s a nice way to put it. It’s not a straightforward book, you’re right. And it *is* hard for a parent to read. But it’s also a bit affirming (albeit rather desperately) in its love of language.
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