--This post brought to you by a bottle of wine, an interruption in the name of Lost and the dead of night. “I’m feeling far from intellectually coherent” etc etc ;-)--
I’ve only really discovered the magnetism of the short story in recent months; I suppose a mixture of impatience and incredulity kept me from sampling widely or enthusiastically enough to develop a taste for it. It is also fair to say that I have found, and continue to find, single author story collections to be most discomforting. I think it virtually impossible to read them in a conventional way (i.e. for hours at a time). One story is never enough to qualify as a reading “session”, but two or three back to back seem over-powering, akin to finishing a novel and then beginning the next within seconds. That always makes me feel dizzy somehow, and unappreciative too, even gluttonous. A few hours of rumination are necessary in order that a book shouldn’t be cheated of its proper flavour; psychological hiatus is essential. And, to compound it, the short form has none of the lengthy gentleness of a novel. Its mode is thrust and jab for both maximum thematic content and for emotional impact; its art is cleanness and directness; it is pared down to deliver the bolt and then run. Short stories are pops of literary adrenalin; two in a row is a terrible overdose.
My only real option is to dip into collections spasmodically, often in the liminal times – in the mornings before breakfast; snatched moments before dinner; in the bath – and consequently to read them slowly, one by one. Thus Yiyun Li’s dainty and explosive A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: 10 short fictions that most definitely punch above their weight. I almost certainly couldn’t have absorbed more than one per sitting.
[Not sure why all the food/eating imagery this evening. Am not hungry. Perhaps am feeling clichéd. ;-)]
“His story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were born…” begins the collection’s best story “Immortality”, which, incidentally, won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize this year, and sets the expansive, tightly packed tone of the little volume. It, and the equally lucid title story “A Thousand Year of Good Prayers”, prove the most representative of Li’s *many* thematic preoccupations: Communism and the cult of personality, cultural alienation, emotional restraint and constraint, the inability to communicate, China juxtaposed with the United States, families in disorder. In it a young man, born bearing a striking resemblance to recently deceased Chairman Mao, is drawn into the upper echelons of the Communist Party as a professional look-a-like only to be cruelly punished for a moment of individuality. He goes on to mutilate himself in a psychological and physiological dismemberment that symbolises both the destruction of his Mao-self and also of his chances of wholeness in the afterlife. Using this overarching thread as cover Li makes what are undeniably withering connections between the great father of the People’s Republic of China and the “Great Papas” or eunuchs of the royal dynasties, juxtaposing their pettiness and the grotesque awe that they inspired. Both, she suggests, lacked a significant humanising element, the thing that would have made them acceptable. It stands, like its strongly political sister story “Persimmons” (in which a man’s son is carelessly murdered by government officials), as a striking dialectic against both the fundamentalism of dictator-worship, the total cultural abnegation that it entails and the inhumanity of Party absolutism.
The emotional threads "Immortality" startles into life - founded on illusion, fanaticism and social coercion – further combine in fostering the sense of debilitating incompleteness or thwartedness that pervades the collection. In "Extra" an old spinster, summarily retired from her factory job, is offered the family she never had only to have her surrogacy despoiled by the machinations of fate and the Party, while in "After Life" a long-suffering and reclusive mother ponders euthanising her severely disabled daughter. "Love in the Market Place" imagines a young woman whose promise of fidelity to a married man destroys her mother and welds her to her own sadness. All are to some extent about individuals held in depersonalised networks of political meaning dressed as propriety and etiquette camouflaged as social necessity. Nevertheless, Li turns her critical gaze, her violent opposition to all this, into tender vignettes that finger the issues lightly but persistently. It all fits her abrupt, almost stilted prose, the kind most suited to the short form, the kind most apt for pathos.
In the three stories not set in China Li attempts to span both the cultural and geographical gulfs that a Western reader is inevitably struck by, these pieces focusing on immigrants in America. (Perhaps it is pertinent to mention that she herself moved from Beijing to Iowa in 1996.) They close in firstly on the cultural gaps, between “here” and “there”, and then on the generational dichotomy between children and parents. Again there is that sense of disconnectedness - that tragedy of alienation – perhaps most graciously explored in “A Thousand Years of Good Prayer”. Therein 75 year old Mr. Shi visits his divorced daughter in America and discovers that, despite his many years of silent prayer and his burning desire to talk, he still finds it impossible to communicate with his own child. Nevertheless he discovers freedom of expression with an anonymous Iranian woman he meets in the local park, talking to her in his native Chinese while she chatters in Arabic. Although the specifics of their conversations may be oblique, the poignant sense of things passing between them is clear as water.
This sense of untranslated understanding epitomises my own experience of Li’s collection, which is, admittedly, filled with references that I cannot fathom, and depths of significance I can hardly plumb. For example, on a simple terminological level, I haven’t a clue what the “persimmon” or Sharon fruit represents in the story of the same name, or what a “stone woman” might be (“The Arrangement”). Similarly my knowledge of twentieth century China is undoubtedly wanting; there must be a weight of history and memory that I missed. Nevertheless, the simplicity of feeling is something the short story also does very well. Because it elicits swift, immediate reaction it also calls for intuition and for the breaking down of conventional understanding. So although I couldn’t possibly make a meaningful assessment of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers in light of, say, the Orange New Writer’s Award (my heart remains with Alderman’s more familiar cadences). Still I can say: it was a masterfully executed and sharply sculpted collection. I liked it. It moved me. Can’t say fairer than that.