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A fearless writer confronts grief and transforms it into art, in a book of surprising beauty and love, "a masterpiece by a master” (Elizabeth McCracken,Vanity Fair).
"Li has converted the messy and devastating stuff of life into a remarkable work of art.”—The Wall Street Journal
The narrator of Where Reasons End writes, “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.”
Yiyun Li meets life’s deepest sorrows as she imagines a conversation between a mother and child in a timeless world. Composed in the months after she lost a child to suicide, Where Reasons End trespasses into the space between life and death as mother and child talk, free from old images and narratives. Deeply moving, these conversations portray the love and complexity of a relationship.
Written with originality, precision, and poise, Where Reasons End is suffused with intimacy, inescapable pain, and fierce love.
Praise for Where Reasons End
“The most intelligent, insightful, heart-wrenching book of our time. I will be pressing this into everybody’s hands, saying: ‘Read this, read this now.’”—Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Less
“I received Yiyun Li’s galley tonight, began almost against my will, and have now just closed it. Some of the words forming are ones that Nikolai would find fault with so I will swallow them. But I sit here shaken and, I think, changed by this work.”—Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers
“Where Reasons End is about the saddest thing in the world, and yet the experience of reading it is mysterious and expansive, as though the limits of all things—language, love, and life—are further than we ever imagined. These stories—astonishing in their compassion, their scope, their private jokes, and their longing—are for anyone who has ever wished that a loved one could have found a way to stay a little longer. An extraordinary book by one of our most extraordinary writers.”—Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck & Other Stories
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Where Reasons End
Do Not Let Mother Dear Find Us
Mother dear, Nikolai said.
I was surprised. He used to only call me that when I wasn’t paying attention. But here I was, holding on to my attentiveness because that was all I could do for him now. I’ve never told you how much I loved you calling me that, I said.
What did you call Grandma?
When I was your age? Mamita, I said.
That was endearing, he said.
You have to get the name right when you find the person hard to endear, I said. Endear, I thought, what an odd word. Endear. Endure. En-dear. In-dear. Can you out-dear someone?
And fancy seeing you here, Nikolai said.
One of us made this happen, I said.
I blame you.
I laughed. Ever so like you, I said. I then explained the liberty I had taken to get myself here. For one thing, I had made time irrelevant.
I could be sixteen like you are, I said, or twenty-two, or thirty-seven, or forty-four.
I would rather you are not sixteen, he said.
I don’t want to feel the obligation to befriend you.
We can still be friends even if I am of another age.
I don’t like making friends with older people. Besides, one can’t really be friends with one’s mother.
Can one not?
No. The essence of growing up is to play hide-and-seek with one’s mother successfully, Nikolai said.
All children win, I said. Mothers are bad at seeking.
You did find me.
Not as your mother, I said. Don’t you notice the sign there (though I knew he couldn’t have—I had hung it up while talking with him): Do not let mother dear find us.
What are you then?
Oh, a runaway bunny like you. How else did we end up here?
Here, as I watched my neighbor leave, a box of fresh-baked chocolate cookies in my hands, was a place called nowhere. The rule is, somewhere tomorrow and somewhere yesterday—but never somewhere today.
I was neither the White Queen, who sets the rule, nor Alice, who declines to live by the rule. I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy. Already there were three clichés. I could wage my personal war against each one of them. Grieve: from Latin gravare, to burden, and gravis, grave, heavy. What kind of mother would consider it a burden to live in the vacancy left behind by a child? Explicate: from Latin ex (out) + plicare (fold), to unfold. But calling Nikolai’s action inexplicable was like calling a migrant bird ending on a new continent lost. Who can say the vagrant doesn’t have a reason to change the course of its flight? Nothing inexplicable for me—only I didn’t want to explain: A mother’s job is to enfold, not to unfold.
Tragedy: Now that is an inexplicable word. What was a goat song, after all, which is what tragedy seemed to mean originally?
Would you call it a tragedy yourself? I asked Nikolai. In the interim between talking with my neighbor and returning to this page, I realized the world might think I was becoming unhinged.
I was not. What I was doing was what I had always been doing: writing stories. In this one the child Nikolai (which was not his real name, but a name he had given himself, among many other names he had used) and his mother dear meet in a world unspecified in time and space. It was not a world of gods or spirits. And it was not a world dreamed up by me; even my dreams were mundane and landlocked in reality. It was a world made up by words, and words only. No images, no sounds.
Would you call it a tragedy? he said.
I would only say it’s sad. It’s so sad I have no other adjectives left.
Adjectives are my guilty pleasure, he said.
I know. You may have to supply me some, I said. Which one word, I wondered, would he come up with to describe my nowhere-ness? Then it occurred to me that he wouldn’t give me a word. No matter how much liberty I had taken in this world, I could not change the fact that I had made this meeting take place. It wasn’t his choice so he was limited by my ability. I had no words but sadness.
Do you want me to feel sad for myself, too? Nikolai said.
I thought about the question. I didn’t know the answer.
I’m not as sad as you think, he said. Not anymore.
I didn’t need him to tell me that, but wouldn’t it be good, my child, if you could still feel sad as I do, because then you could feel other things as I do, too? But I didn’t say these words to him. Instead, I told him a story about my high school classmate’s mother.
The woman grew up on an island in Indonesia. One day she climbed a coconut tree to pick a coconut for her little sister, and plunged from the tree. She did not die but lost most of her hearing from the accident. Later she became a pianist and taught in a conservatory. You had to shout into her ear for her to hear you. I’d never seen her play piano or teach. It was a mystery to me how she could do either.
Beethoven was deaf, too, Nikolai said.
Only later in his life. She was deaf since she was seven.
Was her life more of a tragedy than Beethoven’s?
No, of course not, I said. The reason I was telling you the story was that I now remember she liked me a lot.
As I was talking, more details about the woman and her daughter came to me, the first time I had thought of them in thirty years. My friend was a wild, unruly girl of sixteen, with hair cut by herself, unevenly in the back and front. She failed the college entrance exam and we drifted apart. I had heard she had become a freelance photographer.
The friend’s mother liked to keep me next to her, feeding me sugared citrus and tea when a group of us visited their apartment. She and I rarely talked, but we smiled at each other often. She was an odd woman, half a head taller than her daughter, who was among the tallest in my class, and she was helplessly quiet in front of her daughter, who often joked that I was a perfect companion for her mother.
Not only this friend’s mother, I said. Back then I happened to be liked by all my friends’ parents.
I am not liked by all my friends’ parents, Nikolai said with some pride.
I know. I admire you for that, I said. All the same, they still cry for you.
It doesn’t matter now, he said.
Had it been me at sixteen, many of my friends’ parents would have thought it an inexplicable tragedy. But that knowledge would not have made the world less bleak for me. I hadn’t thought about my friend’s mother for decades. Other than a few facts about her life and her smile, I didn’t know her at all, nor she me.
I suppose you’re right, I said. Still, I wish you knew how much you are missed by many people.
Mommy, Nikolai said, and the way he said it almost made me weep. Mommy, you know that’s a cliché.
What if life could be saved by clichés? What if life must be lived by clichés? Somewhere tomorrow and somewhere yesterday—never somewhere today but cliché-land.
You promised that you would understand, Nikolai said.
Understanding I had promised him. And other things, too: a house in the woods, a kitchen with sunlight, many new recipes, rights to my books—after you die I want the rights to the books you’ve written, but only the good ones, he had said to me at nine. Yet all these promises were as inadequate as love, promise and love being two anchors of cliché-land.
That doesn’t change how sad I am, I said.
But you wouldn’t want people to feel sad all the time if you were me.
I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you. Sadness one can live with, but sadness is a helpless garrison against the blindness of tragedy. A mother and a child cannot be contemporaries at any given age, and for that reason my sixteen-year-old self could not befriend yours. Each refusing to be saved, we could not save each other when young. Older—and you were still young—I was the White Queen who put up the sign. Do not let mother dear find us. You were the one better at hiding.
Waylaid by Days
Now we have our own rules, I said. A step toward somewhere, isn’t it?
I didn’t say how it had made breathing possible. Life, if not lived, is carried by automatic actions, breathing an inevitable one among them. Once at a party someone asked what were the qualities in other people that set one off. I said imprecision.
As though we haven’t always lived by our own rules, Nikolai said. His tone, I imagined, would be the same as when he had once said—after I questioned what other mothers would think of his outfit, unsuitable for a concert he was going to—you don’t even care what others think of you.
Have we always lived by our own rules? But more than the question, I was confused by the tense we used. Queries had been made, and advice given, regarding in what tense I spoke about Nikolai. Yet what makes was different from is, has been from will be? Timeless is this world we are making, tenseless its language.
Rules are set to be broken, he said.
Deadlines are set to be missed, I said. Deadline as a word used to fascinate me, a word that connects time and space and death with such absoluteness.
Promises are made not to be kept, he said.
Love is made not to last, I said. A contestable statement, though he chose not to argue. Love was the word we had used at his leave-taking, he knowing it was final, I sensing it was the case. But between sensing and knowing there were seven hours and four states. Only today did I register that people often in their condolence letters called the loss unfathomable. The distance at the moment of loss could be calculated: 189,200 fathoms. (What does it matter that fathom is no longer used to measure from here to there? To obsolete is to let age, from which death is exempted.)
Not clear, though, is how to fathom time: from a moment to . . . Can forever be the other end point?
But why does it bother you if you insist time does not apply to us anymore? Nikolai said. Omniscience was taken for granted in this world where we met now, but omniscience I let only him claim. You’re breaking your own rules, he said.
Because time still confines and confuses me, I said.
Poor you, he said. Waylaid by time.
Waylay, I said. I’ve never used it in my writing.
No offense, but you don’t have an expansive vocabulary.
Luckily my mind is not limited by my vocabulary, I said. (In my head I used the same tone that I had used when Nikolai had introduced me to his kindergarten class: My mom is an immigrant so she speaks English with an accent. Thank you my dear, I had said then, but I still make a living by writing in English.)
He turned quiet. I understood. Who wants to hear a mother boast about herself?
I turned quiet, too. I was in a subway car. Only a few weeks ago, Nikolai had asked me if it was always this loud underground. We had been on the way to meet my friend, as I was doing today. I can’t live in New York, he had said then. I can’t afford to lose my hearing.
It occurred to me, when I remembered his words now, that I had never paid attention to the noise. I had known I was not sensitive to colors, but to sounds also?
How have I lived so blindly and deafly? I said. Perhaps he had gained knowledge to explain that to me.
He did not reply. He was eavesdropping on a man and a woman standing next to me. I was late to their story. They were talking about a boy who had killed himself the week before, the son of a mutual acquaintance.
Seventeen, the man said. Can you believe it?
Oh my god, the woman said. I read it in the papers. I thought to myself, Someone’s grandson.
Imagine being woken up by that phone call, the man said. How can anyone believe it’s real?
I waited for Nikolai to say something. He would not defend the other boy, I knew that. They each had their own reasons to make a decision that looked similar only to those wanting an explanation. But I wondered if he would say something clever, that people’s sympathy and callousness are like two hands wringing over someone else’s disaster. Or, would he poke fun at them on my behalf? Of course you knew it was real right away, did you not? he would say. How can anyone ask a question starting with that silly phrase How can anyone.
But he did not say anything.
Isn’t it strange that her first thought was someone’s grandson, I said after the man and the woman exited the car.
She just met her first grandchild, Nikolai said.
I had missed that part. We went into the tunnel. I wondered if the noise still bothered him.
I can hear you fine, he said.
Oh, I said. There is one thing that troubles me. I can’t find all those poems you wrote.
Or those I will write.
Touché, I said. I then explained that someone had asked if I had enough of his poetry to make a chapbook.
Chap, ChapStick, chapman, chapbook, he said. All sound small to me. Like you’re going to make—what did they call it in the old time—a miniature of my mind.
How I loved that his ambition and conceit would remain as young as he was. They would be handmade, like what you did in bookbinding, I said.
Those notebooks have blank pages.
Not all books have to be blank, I said. Everyone agrees you are a beautiful poet.
Ha, from reading those doodlings I sent you when I was a kid? he said. You don’t understand poetry.
You as me, your mother, or you as the world?
You as my mommy, he said. Nikolai might be the only sixteen-year-old to still call his mother Mommy. No offense, but your taste is not to be trusted, he said.
I laughed. He had said the same thing when we had been in a shop in Edinburgh, choosing woolen and cashmere scarves for him.
Those scarves are mine now, I said.
You don’t mind my wearing them?
I haven’t worn them so they’re not mine yet. But I do mind, he said, you or anyone reading my poetry.
Yiyun Li is the author of four works of fiction—Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—and the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Under 40” fiction writers to watch. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband and their two sons.