“A conversation about the semantics of emotion” – Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This is the story of a mother – a writer – stupefied by the suicide of her eldest child. Where Reasons End is a dialogue between the living and the dead – or, more correctly, the dead as he might have been, the dead as he’s recalled by a parent who’s trying to write her way around the unthinkable fact of his absence: ‘poems and stories,’ she says, ‘are trying to speak what can’t be spoken.’

It’s subtitled ‘a novel’, but formally it’s more in the way of a Socratic dialogue – a back-and-forth between two ferociously intelligent and stubborn minds, though one is, of course, a construction by the other. The narrator and her son, Nikolai, debate what it means to grieve, to remember, to be gone, to be missed; it’s a conversation, or series of conversations, about the semantics of emotion and the inadequacy and imprecision of language, between two voices who are each committed to precision. The narrator speaks slowly and clearly; she scrutinises her words, her thoughts, her memories, and, simultaneously, via her conjuring of Nikolai, criticises them; the book is a refusal of sentimentality, and yet an admission that sentiment and cliché are, perhaps, the only conceivable modes of expression for such occasions: ‘I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy.’

As Nikolai reacts scathingly to his mother’s failures of exactitude, she works through the etymology of conventional expressions of loss and mourning. ‘There is no good language when it comes to the unspeakable, I thought. There is no precision, no originality, no perfection.’ As she suggests, the book doesn’t lead her, or us, to a resolution, and yet it’s a delicate exploration of how one can, might, or ought to think and write about suffering – and also how one might live through suffering, as the narrator asks: ‘How do I know what’s a right way, or a good way, or a healthy way, or a mindful way to be now?’ Even as she suggests that truisms and apparent banalities might play a part in finding such a way, it’s evident that Where Reasons End is original: in its eschewal of extended backstory or plot, its form belies the comfort of fictionalised banality and forces the reader’s gaze directly onto the bleak unhappiness of both the surviving mother and the dead son.

As a study of memory and death, it’s fitting that Nikolai is both there and not there; he haunts the text, both contemptuous and comforting, a liminal presence that both offers his mother solace and reminds her of his irrefutable absence. She herself occupies a semantic liminal zone between parent and not-parent; she notes that there’s no word to describe her status. The book asks us, then, again: how can one be, if there’s no language with which to describe this existence? Nikolai no longer is, and so she exists now between clichés and silence. As the book’s title suggest, Li offers no answers: ‘How far digressed are we allowed to be on a one-way road before we are called lost? And if one is not lost, can one be found again?’

Any Cop?: A stark and lingering book; highly recommended.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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