‘Where Reasons End’ is an indispensable reflection on grief

Thursday, February 7, 2019 - 12:41am

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li Buy this photo
NOSELL

My God, this one made me sad.

“Where Reasons End” is a string of fictional dialogues between a mother and Nikolai, her deceased son. Nikolai committed suicide. Yiyun Li writes about trauma with an eloquence so intimate that her words read as her truth, and I had to look her up. She wrote the novel in the months following the passing of her own son.

I want everyone to read this book. It’s experimental in its effortless lack of linearity, but it reads with a heaviness that sinks like a brick. I never want to read it again, but I always want to have it close by.

Forever, always, never, Li cycles through these abstractions over and over. I do the same, we all do, until our feet cement in some hapless form of ever.

“The unspeakable is a wound that stays open always, always, and forever … I will be sad today and tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now. I will be sad forever.”

There’s a sickness in the notion of forever, a masturbatory kind of self-indulgence in thinking you can hold a person in your hands indefinitely. Reeling from the pain of a loss can be so intense that it becomes easier to choose to feel nothing at all. Li has filled what would be the heaviest kind of nothingness with words. She accepts her feelings as they come. Death is impossible, indisputable, and Li deals with it.

Time wasn’t made for us to touch, but Li knows better. She doesn’t dare toy with tomorrow; instead, she strangles a fever dream out of today.

“A self is timeless,” Li writes. “Tenseless.”

And I can see it. I see her time, hear it screeching, watch as it evaporates altogether. Her language is so entrenched in time’s failure to pass, and what results is a white-knuckle kind of clinging to grief that’s expressed as honestly and genuinely as anyone can.

“What if, having lived through a dark and bleak time, a parent can convince a child that what we need is not a light that will lead us somewhere, but the resolution to be nowhere, even if it’s ever and forever.”

I don’t know what it means to live fully, or to live well, even. Life is delicate and unbearably breakable, and maybe it’s just a series of resolutions: an acceptance of the time we are given, be it boundless or not. Light doesn’t always have to be burning or fading. Sometimes it just needs to be on.

Nikolai’s mother asks him: “Life is imperfect, but it does mean something, no?”

Choosing to believe life does, in fact, mean something, is a hope-laden resolve. Life isn’t perfect, but it’s enough.

In one of the novel’s more overtly harrowing epicenters, our narrator recounts showing Nikolai a particular line from “Sense and Sensibility,” that “to wish was to hope, to hope was to expect.” Nikolai tasked himself with the hope to be perfect, and this hope translated into a searing belief that unless he could be, he had nothing left to live for. “Where Reasons End” is a mother’s grief over such a dire translation: “Who, my dear child, has taken the word lovable out of your dictionary and mine, and replaced it with perfect?”

What happens to Nikolai isn’t tragic — it’s sad. This book is sad, these conversations are sad. Li has created a life in this book from Nikolai’s words that’s opaque and grossly adversary to the fluidity of what it means to live. She grips time, treats death like taffy, and it’s not right or wrong. It just is.

Nikolai was too fast to taste his own freedom. The mother in this novel describes someone who dies as having the “privilege” of not being left behind — a sentiment so blunt it nearly broke me, as did many of Li’s words. Life is hard. What we’re doing here is so very hard. Unless there’s peace nestled inside the rubble of each moment, the days start to hollow themselves out.

The novel is aptly titled, because the dialogues that fill this narrative don’t happen so much as they simply are, like time is, life is, death is: reasonless, but present. Always.