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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, May 5, 2017

A story of scope and ambition despite a wayward narrative

There is no question that Yiyun Li's life story is amazing, judging from what we (or I) know about her from her previously published fiction and essays. Not only is she a trained scientist (I can't remember the particular, but perhaps she's an MD or a PhD in science) who decided to hell with that and opted to write fiction and essays and now finds herself as one of the New Yorker's anointed - she also is Chinese born, English is her 2nd language, and she has chosen to write in English (she lives in the U.S. I believe). It also seems from her published essays that she has overcome some severe episodes of depression. As noted, quite a story - and who wouldn't wish such a brave and talented write all the success she's earned. I can only say, I wish I liked her fiction more - but maybe she's still finding her footing? Story in current NYer, A Little Flame, is a good example of her strengths and weaknesses. First of all, it's a truly ambitious story, a full account of a life of a complex and suffering character: "Bella" (an adopted Anglicized name), Chinese born, trained as a lawyer and living in the U.S. for 25 or so years, twice divorced, and we meet her on a return visit to China as an informal tour guide for two friends, one a fellow attorney and the other his partner, who is doing research for a book about his roots (one grandparent was from China). The story is structured, or unstructured, much like an Alice Munro piece (I wonder how strong the influence is there), wandering about among various potential narrative pathways: At first we think the story's about one of the two friends, but they disappear about a quarter of the way through, then we think it's perhaps about Bella's unusual family background and childhood (she was adopted by wealthy Chinese parents - they had rejected their first adoptee on learning that she was a "deaf-mute"). Then the story settles into a reminiscence about Bella's high-school English teacher, Miss Chu, whom she tries to track down while in China; through a friend's research and some web searches she finds that Miss Chu is now an LBGTQ activist. This kind of roving narrative works for Munro, and I think that's because Munro is also dedicated to plot - Li is more dedicated to incident. A few things "happen" in this story - an encounter with a young girl selling flowers, for example - but the story doesn't seem to cohere and just seems to end when it runs out of gas. The "discovery" about Miss Chu's activism and sexual orientation is hardly an epiphany, as it does not speak to or shed light on anything in the preceding narrative. Still, it's a story w/ scope and ambition, which is more than I can say for most stories these days, and Li is worth reading going forward.

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