The Art of Solitude

Living in the shadow of murder

Yiyun Li, author of Kinder Than Solitude

"I'm an intense watcher, I'll win any staring contest", Yiyun Li joked in front of a delighted San Francisco audience on February 27th. In her newest book, Kinder than Solitude, Li focuses on three characters who attempt to resolve (or forestall) inner conflict by pursuing lives of solitude. Unfortunately, they come to realize that solitude is not always a good cleaning agent for conscience. In the end, facing their pasts, and the people in them, is the only way to find peace. Li spoke before an audience of Asia Society, Mechanics’ Institute, and Litquake members.

The novel follows three protagonists, Ruyu, Moran, and Boyang. One of them may have poisoned their neighbor, Shaoai, in 1989. Unlike most murder victims, Shaoai does not die quickly but holds on for 21 years, half-alive, half-dead. The emotional impact of this drawn-out murder on the three protagonists is overwhelming. To cope with either the guilt or the memory (the reader can’t be sure which), all three become dedicated to living lives of solitude. Ruyu, an orphan from a young age, was raised in a quasi-Catholic household. Convinced of her unique connection to God, she views other people as alien, acting and thinking in ways that she doesn’t understand. She and Moran, flee China, putting emotional and geographic space between their lives and the incident.

Yiyun Li: "Sometimes you can orphan yourself; "the worst case is an orphan with parents."  Moran and Boyang unfortunately belong in Li’s second category. Moran would rather foot the bill to travel with her parents around Europe than allow them a glimpse of her everyday life in the U.S. Boyang remains in China and takes care of Shaoai until her death, but he too shuts himself off from the world. He reinvents himself as a playboy, using women and being sure to keep them at a safe distance. In front of his parents he plays the dedicated son, doing just enough that no one will question him. It becomes clear that although Shaoai was the victim of the poisoning, everyone has been poisoned by the event. Time, the twenty-one years it takes Shaoai to pass away, becomes the most potent poison, mutating the three protagonists’ lives of solitude into, Li writes, “a lifelong quarantine against life and love".

It is this experience of solitude as quarantine that particularly interests Li. In her talk, she related her amusement at New York City subway riders and how they look at each other, or rather don't look at each other, on their journeys. Most are preoccupied with Flappy Bird, texts, and emails. Our ultra-connected lifestyle offers an instant connection to anyone and anything, but as Li points out, it also brings anxiety and detachment. As the characters in Li's novel show us, shared histories are often the last thing we want to face; it often seems easier to keep them distant and under wraps. Li herself admits a reluctance to turn her penetrating gaze towards her own family story.

Li: "A murky family history is universal: how much do we know, how much do we want to know?" Some politically minded readers might wonder whether the murder plot is a stand in for political and social conditions in China. Li told the audience that the book "is not a political novel", yet the shadow of the Tiananmen looms large in the background of the characters’ lives. The massacre is mentioned in conjunction with Shaoai's involvement as a protestor but draws only oblique attention elsewhere, with the three protagonists reluctant to acknowledge its existence or importance. Still, it may not be too much of a stretch to think of Tiananmen as like Shaoai herself: as a blot on the protagonists’ consciences that they address by distancing, hiding, or forgetting. It does not require a large leap of faith to see Tiananmen as a poison that has been infecting China’s social/political conscience for 30 years. Although the chain of events varies slightly, in both cases the violence marks a shared experience that evolved into a constant reminder of the tragedy. Will the Chinese public find, like Li’s characters, that resolving these memories through solitude doesn’t work? Li concedes that she fears young people in contemporary China are "distancing themselves from history." Tumultuous events like Tiananmen are certain to have a profound impact even on those not directly involved. Acknowledging our demons often leaves us vulnerable, exposing cracks in our public face. Those who address them through solitude may be walking a thin line between closure and denial.

If there is one thing that a mostly subtle Li expresses directly in the novel, it is that most people believe "in a moment called later. Safely removed, later promises possibilities: changes solutions, rewards, happiness, all too distant to be real, yet real enough to offer relief from the claustrophobic cocoon of now."