I just finished Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, which might be called a conceptual novel, an experimental novel, perhaps an experimental memoir, or perhaps just a heart-wrenching and intellectually-challenging good book that muses on grief, loss, perception, and language in one hundred and seventy pages.
A mother whose son has recently committed suicide at sixteen meets with him in what he refers to as “aftertime” by sitting down and writing their posthumous dialogues. While this could be a dangerous literary device, there is no trace whatsoever of sentimentalism or pop spirituality in the story, and indeed the reader accepts the existence of the relationship across time and death as given, even when the author refers to the device directly.
Living mother and dead son discuss their relationship, their separate feelings, their habits, what was seen and what was missed in their life together, and the behavior of frieends and neighbors both before and after the death. They also discuss the nature of time, memory, and perception, and the function of habits and practices (such as the son’s baking, the mother’s writing) on their placement in the world, and in time. And they discuss words and how they work in an artifact made, of course, of words.
The story comes to no conclusion, because there is no possible conclusion for it to come to, which is perhaps the most important underlying theme. It presents this ending logically, remorselessly, and kindly, reflecting the dead son’s personality and the living mother’s willingness to accept him on his own terms. It is a beautiful and devastating story, with nothing high-flown or pretentious about it (the son is constantly undercutting the mother’s small pretensions), and it is all the more affecting when you learn, from the jacket copy, that the author’s own son committed suicide at sixteen. (Li makes an oblique reference to this within the text as well.)
It sounds like a difficult novel, and it is intellectually difficult in some ways, but it is simple, poetic, and honest as well–simple in a complicated way, and well worth reading.