Commentary Magazine

Crime and Self-Punishment

Kinder Than Solitude
By Yiyun Li
Random House, 336 pages

Yiyun Li’s second novel begins in a crematorium in Beijing. A wealthy middle-aged man named Boyang has come to collect the ashes of his childhood friend Shaoai, finally dead after years of being a brain-damaged invalid. “The decaying that had dragged on for too long had only turned tragedy into nuisance,” Boyang thinks as he wanders among the mausoleums, waiting for Shaoai’s ashes to be ground into dust. But there’s more to this particular nuisance than meets the eye. Shaoai, it turns out, was not struck down by accident or illness; she was poisoned 21 years earlier. Li writes: “The chemical found in Shaoai’s blood had been taken from his mother’s laboratory; whether it had been an attempted murder, an unsuccessful suicide, or a freak accident had never been determined.” At the time, suspicion fell on Boyang and two female friends, all of whom had visited his mother’s lab a few days earlier, but the evidence proved unconvincing, and the investigation was dropped.

And yet being let off the hook did not rescue Li’s three protagonists. They have consigned themselves to emotional prison as punishment for Shaoai’s poisoning. Boyang has played the martyr most overtly. He alone has remained in Beijing, visiting Shaoai and her parents regularly and helping with her care and support. This penance would seem appropriate if performed in the open, for why shouldn’t Boyang help an old friend and a family in need? But he has never told anyone, not even his parents, that he looks in on Shaoai, and keeping Shaoai a secret from his wife destroyed his marriage.

Boyang hardly misses his ex-wife. He’s indifferent to his career. He floats through life in an apathetic haze, though he has allowed himself one crucial self-indulgence: Every month, he sends an email to his two vanished childhood friends to let them know Shaoai is still alive. Neither woman has ever responded. “Why not come back now, you two deserters?” he thinks, after one final missive with news of Shaoai’s death. “A vanishing act is an old trick; nevertheless it works on hearts of all ages: could it be that we will never be rid of that child in us, who, panicking about never seeing a beloved face again, is still screaming to this day?”

Boyang’s repressed anguish is multiplied a thousand times in the heart of Moran, who was his best pal and sidekick throughout their shared adolescence. As a young girl, Moran was outgoing, affectionate, curious, and anxious to please; in her childhood, “blinded by her eagerness to love, Moran had found the world a loving place.” Shaoai’s poisoning changed all that. Moran lives a life of tamped-down desperation; 16 years after coming to America with nothing more than two suitcases, she works at a dull job, keeps to a rigid set of routines (brisk walks, volunteer work, books from the library) and severely limits all human attachment. “All she wanted was to have her mind and her heart uncluttered, and with discipline she had since maintained a savage routine that cleansed her life to sterility.” Like Boyang, she was once married, but she divorced her husband, Josef, the minute their connection threatened to become real: “Moran, panicked at the predicament in which she had found herself—love offered where she had asked only for kindness—would not have spared a limb or two in her scrambling to get herself untangled, and in doing so she had left a few scratches on
Josef’s life, too.”

The memory of these scratches torments Moran. Her self-imposed isolation is aimed at protecting others as much as herself; “the thought that she could be ruthless was too much for her to bear: Ruthlessness was a trait she associated with Boyang, and before him, Ruyu.”

Ruyu is Kinder Than Solitude’s most enigmatic and disturbing character. We meet her first as a terrifyingly self-possessed 15-year-old in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square protests, when she arrives in Beijing to board with Shaoai’s family. She’s an orphan, raised by a pair of spooky spinsters, and she bears herself with such superciliousness that it’s difficult to understand why Moran and Boyang go out of their way to befriend her. Shaoai is not impressed, but then again she has more reason to resent the newcomer, who will share her room (and even her bed) for the duration of her stay. “What is it like to have so much contempt for the world?” Shaoai demands during a typical confrontation. When Ruyu refuses to engage, her fury escalates. “Leave you alone? Why don’t you spare all of us that judgmental attitude? Why don’t you leave me alone?”

Ruyu understands her power well: “She would never allow herself to be outwitted in what she excelled at; the habit of being opaque allowed her to be a mystery in people’s eyes.” But she also knows her opacity must work both ways: “To want to know any person better requires one to give up that position and to become less inscrutable.” Ruyu’s life since the poisoning has not been easy: Her aloofness has inspired passionate hatred and even violence, once from a husband and once, dreadfully, from Shaoai herself. Surely we should pity her. After all, this is a woman so repressed that she studies her bruises carefully in the mirror after her husband beats her “so that she could have a better sense of the pain she should feel.” But Ruyu resists the reader’s sympathy as actively as she shuns human companionship. We are told she is physically beautiful, but it’s almost impossible to picture. We can’t see past her gnarled and damaged soul.

Kinder Than Solitude is, at times, as intimidating and off-putting as Ruyu. The writing itself is amazing; Li came to the United States from Beijing as an adult in 1996, never having written fiction in either Chinese or English until she abandoned a Ph.D. in immunology to enroll in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her prose is flawless, a joy to read—if only we weren’t reading about such unpleasant, emotionally stunted people. Behind the stately paragraphs that thrum with purpose, marching us toward the ghastly solution to the mystery of Shaoai’s death, lurks a supremely upsetting notion: in the end, it does not matter whodunit. There will be no tidy resolution, no catharsis, no easy redemption. “Moving on? That’s an American thing I don’t believe in,” Moran snaps near the end of the book. By this point, neither do we. To live in the past, to be trapped in and haunted by the past, to pay homage for an entire lifetime to events that happened in the past, comes, at the end of this superb and depressing book, to seem inevitable.

About the Author

Fernanda Moore reviewed Casebook by Mona Simpson last month. 

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