In certain Edward Hopper paintings, several people stand or sit in the same room, each looking in a different direction, absorbed in private thoughts. Despite physical closeness, they’re estranged, their minds far apart, their intentions and ruminations unknown to each other.
That will be the reader’s first impression when opening “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” Oakland author Yiyun Li’s appealing and lucid new collection of eight stories and a novella. The book is saturated with widowhood, loneliness, illness, divorce, grief, death, privation and deprivation. “Welcome to the land of the unfortunate and the deserted,” as a character in “House Fire” summarizes her own fate without self-pity.
Despite the bleakness of Li’s book, it radiates love, passion and kindness, however trivial and intangible. The piece that voices human warmth most effectively is “Kindness,” the novella.
The narrator is Moyan, a 41-year-old math teacher, who lives alone in a derelict Beijing neighborhood. Moyan’s reminiscences often take her to her spiritually deprived youth. As a girl, she was acquainted with Professor Shan, an old and eerie teacher who read her English books by Dickens, Lawrence and the like. She also came to know Lieutenant Wei while she was in forced military training at college, an aftermath of the Tiananmen protests of 1989.
Both Shan and Wei attempted to reach the young Moyan’s heart, noticing her solitude and silence, but their persistence in seeking her friendship failed miserably. And Wei’s somewhat innocent question to Moyan, “Tell me, how can we make you happy?,” remained unanswered until many years later, after both Wei and Shan have died. Only then has the much older Moyan assumed a new perspective about herself, her past, her nonbiological parents and the people who have crossed her path at various stages of her life.
The title story is yet another revelation of the compromise a person must make for the sake of kindness and love, either out of civil duty or a force beyond conscious awareness. In the story, a widowed zoology professor wants her favorite student to marry her son. All three are loners, each with a secret that cannot be shared, and they know that they “would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”
By exploring her characters’ innermost worlds, Li sometimes depends too much on fate’s random and mysterious aspects. This can create suspense but can also make certain stories and characters seem contrived and less convincing. “Sweeping Past” describes a woman’s alienation from her childhood best friends because her once-well-intentioned proposal has resulted in a senseless rape and killing. In “Prison,” a middle-aged couple, after their daughter’s death, find a poor country woman, a dimwit’s wife, to serve as the surrogate mother of their fertilized egg. During the pregnancy, the woman threatens to break the contract if the couple don’t give her money to buy back her long-lost son. “The Proprietress” is a story of an affluent and strong-willed businesswoman adopting unfortunate women and kids so she can “reconstruct” them.
Despite its flaws, Li’s collection well deserves a celebration with its sophistication and honesty, which often derive from a deep understanding of the history, culture and politics of China, and of their impact on ordinary people. Li has cited William Trevor as one of her biggest influences. Like Trevor, she tends to write about loneliness, bereavement and compassion; also like Trevor, she sympathizes with all her imperfect characters, even the worst and most difficult ones. This quality can be seen in “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” and in Li’s earlier works, her debut short-story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” and her first novel, “The Vagrants.”
Reading Li recalls an experience of brooding about the past – painful, disturbing but accepted and rationalized with a mixed sense of wonder and helplessness – near a pond at sunset. Yes, sorrows may arise during times of reflection, but it’s impossible not to fall in love with the privacy and tranquillity of the time and place.