In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, recently given the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, is our first selection.
Quick Book Summary: A mother imagines a conversation between herself and the child she has lost to suicide.
Yiyun Li started writing Where Reasons End, an imagined conversation between an unnamed mother and the son (Nikolai) she’s lost to suicide, after her own son took his life. How can anyone review such a personal book, a book that reads more as a therapeutic exercise than a novel? It’s a question Nikolai wouldn’t be interested in. He is not interested in the unimaginable, the unbelievable, and throughout the novel he chastises his mother when she gives in to her grief and other words prefixed with “un”—“unknit yarn, volumes of untried recipes, years of unlived life.”
Most of the time, the mother listens. Instead of diving down a well of could have’s, she obsesses over the meanings and origins of words to try to better understand her grief and avoid the clichés and metaphors Nikolai so detests. However, in her search for precision, I believe the metaphors are more successful than the etymologizing and Nikolai is never less real than when he calls his mother out for being self-indulgent.
For the most part, I was completely immersed. There were moments when I would forget he wasn’t there until we’re reminded by someone outside the family’s response to his death. One I found particularly heartbreaking was that from Nikolai’s preschool teacher: “When you come back please call me so we can cry together. I am so sad… I thought we prepared him to live.”
Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End is consumed by etymological explorations, puns, semantics. It asks questions about the comfort of cliché, about whether dumber is safer, about whether precision is worth the effort. It’s a postmodern Through the Looking Glass, with homages to the original throughout, both in overt references and a similar enthusiasm for wordplay—literally: playing with words. The conversations approach jokes and puns, but they follow their thread away, away, and then back to the original issue again, with no real development or resolution but nonetheless with the feeling that we’ve learned something, like Socrates and Euthyphro poking at the abstract but learning nothing, except maybe that they know nothing. Readers looking for answers won’t find them; it’s literature, not self-help. There is no resolution, only blur.
Because in a word, Where Reasons End is impressionistic. It gives up clarity in exchange for sensation. Thought and dialogue run together, with no punctuation divide. (For once, this fad is justified.) Li chooses emotional truth over precision. She chooses a real feeling of floundering over “conflict” and “stakes.” She is witty, not revelatory. She even makes you do your own math to find out how far the narrator was from her son when he died—215 miles, which is almost certainly the number she worked back from because it is too precise for coincidence. But though each of the brushstrokes may feel wrong next to its brother, the novel as a whole feels right, the way a canvas of smudges in improbable colors feels like a landscape bathed in light. As long as it was painted by a master.
At less than 200 pages, Yiyun Li’s new novel, Where Reasons End, wrestles with the age-old questions of how one emotionally processes the death of a loved one—in this case an unspeakable tragedy such as suicide. Most importantly to the narrator, can loss be emotionally processed through words? The novel exists in a fictional world of words as imagined conversations between a son, Nikolai, and his writer mother, Mommy (modeled after Li whose 16-year-old son died by suicide in 2017), in the wake of his suicide.
Throughout the series of conversations between Mommy and Nikolai, Li’s novel is a poignant reminder that while grief is universally experienced in life, how we experience it differs. I heavily appreciated that Li utilized the banter between Mommy and Nikolai to debate common clichés associated with a death such as fading memory, regret, and unanswered questions while also using the space to highlight their unique relationship, who Nikolai was, and what life means to Mommy. Li’s command of the conversational format is a fresh breath of air and empowers her to avoid re-living and re-telling her loss that comes in a traditional memoir format like Joan Didion’s, Year of Magical Thinking. Moreover, the debated clichés and topical discussions between the two invite readers to experience a higher degree of empathy that is challenging to achieve in more personalized memoirs.
In thinking about the topic of death, Li’s novel has managed to rise to the challenge of feeling like it does say something new about death and loss by merely using a meta-conversation format. That being said, the novel fails to answer its own question on whether loss can be processed through writing. By the last conversation, the writing begins to feel repetitive and the reader is left emotionally exhausted by the topics. While the novel may have failed to answer its own purpose, Where Reasons End is still a powerful example of empathy and reflection that readers of all backgrounds can appreciate.
Yiyun Li has a gorgeous way with words. Every carefully crafted sentence is beautiful, down to the rhythm of each sentence on the page. The premise of this book is a super interesting one, too: mother copes with teenage son’s suicide by having imaginary conversations with him, perhaps continuations of conversations they’d had before. I felt most grounded and immersed in these conversations in chapter seven during their conversations about adverbs and adjectives, the son arguing for their importance and the mother vehemently disagreeing. In this moment, their conversation felt real. I felt like I understood their dynamic as a genuine replica of what they had before.
But by chapter 8, the feeling was gone for me again, back to the floaty nature the writing generally occupies. I had the most difficult time suspending my disbelief when the son said things that the mother “forgot” or did not know in the first place, as is common when they discuss words and writing. It seemed conscious thought does not play by the rules of our reality, though this is where their space to communicate comes from. I also felt myself getting pulled out in small but frequent moments where the mother defends her word choice. At times, for me more often than not, it felt as though the son represented a fear of the way people might receive this book, so the mother, through Li, set out to defend it. Maybe that comes from knowing about Li’s son’s suicide at the age of sixteen, though. Still, the lack of physicality hammers in the sense of loneliness that I got from each page, but also could pull me out more often than I wanted, especially when listening to the audiobook. I had to switch to the physical book to keep track of what was being said, who was saying what, and when her musings were verbally toward her son or inwardly toward herself (not that it matters, because he hears and responds to both).
This book is one long debate with her son over everything she and he have ever cared about, and of course they’re on opposing ends more often than not. If there is a sense of tension in here, these debates are where it comes from. For the most part, the tone felt absent of peaks and I was left wanting more from the end. I expected the last chapter to come to something more profound than where they’d been, to have the mother feel more deeply than she had, but it was much the same as the rest of the book.
To read Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End is to exchange the common rhythms of grief for liminality. The novel’s suspension of place allows the reader to focus on the acuteness of internal mourning. Li strips away sensory experiences so that language—and its dissection—is the primary vehicle through which the characters interact and the narrator works through her grief.
Rather than painting a sweet mother and son, Li creates complicated characters that openly invite readers’ affection or dislike. Nikolai’s condescension, the narrator’s abandonment of real life, and the headiness of their conversations make them difficult to like. Only after the narrator acknowledges the usefulness of cliché do sparing details about Nikolai (the love of baking, the knitting, the walk home from school) emerge. They create a boy with all the trappings of personhood—someone whose absence I could then grieve. These details, in combination with the narrator’s fleeting references to the changing seasons, are the only indicators of the true impact and longevity of her loss in the outside world.
Where Reasons End both defies and complements Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of the year following her husband’s sudden death. Whereas Li eschews the concrete world to avoid sentimentality, Didion rejects wistfulness in favor of the specific: in the history logs of a Word document, a reluctance to give away shoes. Li focuses only on the irreplaceable relationship between the narrator and her son, while Didion weaves facts, myth, research, and reflection. I found myself drawn back to Magical Thinking even as I read Reasons, and found Didion expressed the commonality of loss more effectively than Li’s experiment in liminality. The success of Li’s novel, however, surpasses its portrait of grief. It demonstrates the possibilities of character-only work in dramatic environments, and proves that a novel’s success is not inextricably tied to the emotions that readers can see or touch.
Curated by Brandon Williams