After having reviewed The Vagrants, I suppose I was bracing myself for a collection far more dark in its execution. In a way, I’m glad that Li has returned to the short story form, as the scope of the stories are more domestically situated and not quite as gothic and graphic as what was depicted in her debut novel. These are really stories that give one time to breathe and to contemplate, precisely as they radiate a kind of quiet and dignified sadness. If there is a link to all characters within every story, there is a sense of loss that permeates the layers of each individual psyche. These are characters, many that understood they once had a chance to act upon a dream, but now feel as if a certain moment or possible future has been irreparably lost. While I won’t spend time to discuss each story, I will take on a longer reading of the first story from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, which is one of the first major forays that Li takes in using the first person narrative perspective. The majority of the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl unfold through a third person perspective, a narrative mode through which Li has already shown numerous times how effective she is at using. In “Kindness,” which opens Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (a novelette of sorts as it is approximately 80 pages in length and certainly the longest “story” in the most recent publication), the novel is told from the first-person perspective of Moyan, a middle class Beijing urbanite destined for a brighter future based upon a higher class background in a modernizing Chinese world. This story is clearly evocative of the kinds of changes that China has undergone as Maoist policies have been further hybridized with Western capitalistic influences. But, this is really just the backdrop to “Kindness” as it focuses on the ways in which individuals can irreparably alter the course of one life. Moyan, as she comes to understand herself, had opportunities to become a different kind of person, but a close connection to an educated woman, Professor Shan, results in a very different trajectory. The story is thus about reflecting upon one’s life and thinking about the various detours that one might have taken if one had the chance to do things over again. In retrospect, Moyan thinks about Lieutenant Wei, a woman she had met at a Communist army camp, who although very strict as a military superior during that period, nevertheless hinted at the possibilities of a stronger bond and friendship. Moyan, by this time, had been schooled by Professor Shan, to believe that love is essentially a kind of trap, one that leads to more suffering. However, “Kindness” seems to suggest that risk might be rewarded in certain circumstances; it is more the question about when one takes such risks, such leaps of faith. The following stories follow with this general thematic and many are linked in relation to aging widowers, childless couples, spinsters, orphans and the like, all those who might experience problems related to kinship. The title story, which ends the collection, is in many ways another variation on this theme of lost chances and the routes that people might take to at least be able to partially recover what they most desire. A Chinese spinster agrees to be paired up with the son of her beloved female professor, if only to be able to keep this professor in her life. The complication is of course that the son is a gay man, but he returns to China in part to honor his filial duties. In these steps at compromise, we see that characters attempt to exert agency in a rapidly changing and modernizing Chinese world. Another understated and lyrically grounded work from Li.
Also, Kudos to Li who just received a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. The good news for Asian American literature fans is that we probably can expect more publications in a small period of time. Yes, for MoAR reading!
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