On the shelf
The Book of the Goose
By Yiyun Li
FSG: 368 pages, $28
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Yiyun Li laughs a lot. In the hour we spent on Zoom, almost every time she spoke, there was a moment where she paused, looked down, and then up — and she laughed. “Am I starting to sound cuckoo?” she said a few times (she wasn’t), before laughing again. Talk of Li’s work sometimes sticks to its sadness, a description Li is well aware of: “People find me gloomy,” she said, then grimaced; we both laughed.
Three of the friends to whom I recommended Li’s new novel The Book of the Goose paused for a moment and then asked worriedly: how sad is it I understood this recurring question; I was appalled too. Li’s books portray the world so sharply it could bleed, but they are also imbued, I think, with an extraordinary hope. While they don’t often end particularly well for the characters, there is a richness, a deep love for language and character, that leaves me not exactly happy, but still full at the end.
The Book of Goose, Li’s fifth novel (there are also two story collections and memoirs), is no exception. However, it is a departure in many ways: historically, set in rural western France after World War II, it deals almost exclusively with the lives of children. (Our narrator, 28, recounts the years when she was 12-14 years old). It is the story of a growing friendship between women, larger networks of exploitation and the emergence of an artist.
But the beauty of reading a work as vast and rich as Li’s is that you can see how the best novels elude summary. Like all of Li’s books, “Goose” does not “linger,” as Li describes it, for “linger is for the reader”; It moves uncompromisingly through time, attuned to the inner workings of its characters, without grappling with the many acts of violence and loss they experience.
For Li, “Goose” began like any of her stories: with the characters. She talks about them as if they live inside her, as if her process boils down to just listening very carefully: “They came together as a couple for two moments. One was when they were talking and Fabienne said, “How do you grow happy?” And Agnes said, “Can you grow happiness?” And Fabienne said: “Yes, we will grow potatoes and beets…” And [then] Agnes has this moment of disappointment and thinks, well, shouldn’t happiness be a little more extraordinary, more extraordinary than that?”
Both Fabienne and Agnes have mostly absent parents. They have each other and not much else. Fabienne is in charge, at least in the beginning. She persuades Agnes to play all sorts of mischievous “games” – eventually translating the violent stories she conjures up into a book to be published under Agnes’ name. In short, the book makes Agnes famous. The girls drift apart.
The book we are reading right now was also written by Agnes who is now married and living in America after Fabienne died in childbirth at the age of 28. “No, it’s not Fabienne’s ghost that licked the tip of my pen clean,” writes Agnes, “or opened the notebook to that new page, but sometimes one person’s death is another person’s parole record.” I may not have gained full freedom, but I am free enough.”
Li tells me that the characters came to her together, “yin and yang,” only as a dyad entirely. But the book begins with Fabienne’s death. The reality of this, the clarity with which Li sees and understands both these girls’ bond and their inevitable breakup, comes from something else she’s talked about a lot, which is the way a writer constantly works to transform the world absorb and reflect. Li used the analogy of a mirror that we all carry on our shoulders, “but this mirror doesn’t just capture reality, not just reality’s reflections. Each of us does something through that mirror that creates a new and separate world, a combination of the real and the unreal.”
I asked her what she would most like to capture in her mirror. “It’s kind of a shadow,” she says. “I can’t really see it… something that’s so fleeting, but you know, it’s real. It exists, but only momentarily.” She said her mirror pays particular attention to “both psychological and physical violence; Violence so low you won’t feel it unless you’re acute.
There is also something mystical about this. (And this is where Li commented on the cuckoo’s cuckoo.) But it also taps into the precision with which her books urge the reader to adjust to the realities of her characters, even if all we can capture from them are shadows.
Before Li received her Masters in Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Li came to Iowa City to study immunology. “In science you can never say you know something,” she said. “You’re just saying you know a little bit, and based on that information you can know a little bit more.” She says of Agnes, “We can’t get her chemical components, can’t get everything out of her. And yet it is there.”
In 2017, while working on her novel Must I Go, about a woman who lost her daughter to suicide, Li lost her own son Vincent, then 16, to suicide. She put the novel aside and wrote Where Reasons End, a novel composed of conversations between a mother and her son’s spirit, in the months after Vincent’s death. It captures an almost unfathomable shadow. I’ve read the book twice and can only say how it feels in my body every time I think about it: queasy and amazed, grateful, devastated, terrifyingly alive and stunned.
All of this is only possible thanks to Li’s exceptional attention to language. She is a notoriously devoted reader, often delving into many books at once over a period of weeks. She says it feels more respectful for the author to linger that way. She doesn’t write every day, but she won’t go a day without reading.
In 2020, with Brigid Hughes in A Public Space, Li read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with a group of people on Twitter the same way: 10-15 pages a day for 85 days. That experience became a book, Tolstoy Together, published by A Public Space last year. In the opening letter, Li writes: “I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solid and structured Tolstoy’s novels offer. In these times one would like to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved while writing.”
As I read this, after speaking to her – having recently felt compelled (before I got this assignment) – both Where Reasons End and her memoir Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life” – it felt like a perfect description of the power of Li’s own work: her attunement to the violence her characters experience, her willingness to endure her pain even when her fiction remains impassive.
Although time has shifted somewhat for Li. In recent years, she’s become better at letting her fiction sink in. She remembers a reader a few years ago asking her how she knew when she was finished with a novel; She said it was “if the book hurt me”. In the case of Fabienne and Agnes, it was their inevitable separation, demanding that Fabienne die from the start. “For so long I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be great if they could stay together forever and ever? But that’s a moment in her life. can you stay in this moment Can you keep this moment alive? No, nobody can.”
Strong is the critic and author of the forthcoming novel Flights.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-20/how-novelist-yiyun-li-learned-to-capture-shadows Yiyun Li discusses grief, her new novel ‘The Book of Goose’