Yiyun Li is the author of Kinder Than Solitude, a profound mystery about three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed. She is joined in conversation by Mona Simpson, author of Casebook, a powerful new novel about a young boy’s quest to uncover the mysteries of his unraveling family.
A Conversation Between Mona Simpson and Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li: The central plot of your new novel, Casebook, is a love mystery and a detective story. I wonder if there’s mystery in the kernel of every love.
Mona Simpson: Love is an experience of yearning. I don’t know if it’s possible to feel completely in love at the same time you feel thoroughly comprehended. And yet, it’s everyone’s dream to be known. Yiyun, the organization of both your novels (The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude) emanates from a central dramatic event, a mystery of sorts. The structure is almost a wheel, with spokes coming out. It occurs to me that your novels are structured the way a classic short story is said to be, more than your stories are.
YL: You are right that novels and stories start differently for me: a novel starts with a situation, and a story starts with a character or a set of characters more than a situation. Indeed both novels open with a death that the characters have to deal with. Kinder Than Solitude, for instance, started with a woman who was poisoned, yet who lived in a prolonged state of unnecessary misery for twenty-three years. Who was this woman? Who were the people involved in the case? Why did the case remain unresolved? And what happened when the woman finally died? These questions from that central situation were all mysteries to me when I started the novel. Time in a novel works a little differently: the space provided by a novel allows a writer not only to collapse time—twenty or thirty years in a scene, a century or two in one sentence—but also to dissect a moment without letting anyone off the hook. Perhaps this is the rippling effect you talk about: time can be brief or expansive. I also like to imagine that a novel is like an accordion: when Ruyu in the novel plays the accordion, we see the motion of something being opened and closed, and we wait to hear what kind of tune is produced.
In Casebook, the grownups endeavor to treat the breaking-up of families as normal. That makes the disruption more poignant.
MS: When Henry James published What Maisy Knew (his novel about a contentious divorce) in 1897, the divorce rate in the United States was seven percent. Now, it’s closer to fifty percent. And “normal” is little more than common practice with a bit of moral sugar sprinkled on.
For the most part, legally, we declare divorce “no fault.” We’ve changed the way we live, we’ve changed our laws and so our art changes too. Marriage is no longer until death do us part, and fictionally, there’s no way to make that feel exactly right. What we’ve lost is permanence, the simple happy ending. The forever after of fairytales. If a man sleeps with a young woman in Shakespeare or Cervantes, you can bet by the end of the story, they will have been tricked into marrying each other. The complex reality of marriage enters the novel as early as Middlemarch, a book a friend once told me he loved because the two best people don’t end up together. They not only don’t end up together, they meet many times and aren’t even interested in each other. Dorothea makes a disastrous marriage and when her author lets her off the hook (by killing off her husband), we’re meant to believe that she eventually finds some kind of happiness with Will. And yet, there’s a deflation in the ending. Dorothea and Will are like a couple one grudgingly admits to be happy but doesn’t envy.
We all know that divorce is sometimes unavoidable. Yet for ourselves and our children, we don’t want divorce. We don’t want even that weird modern almost-oxymoron, a good divorce. We don’t hope to be Dorothea and Will. We want a Jane Austen love. We want permanence. We want rightness. But even no fault divorces leave victims. Somewhere in that disparity, between what we still wish for and what we can’t avoid, fiction grows.
YL: This is the first time you have a teenage boy as a first person narrator. His observations come from a place where the tenderness of a boy is not yet replaced by man’s half-heartedness. For instance: “We come into the world whole, all of us, but we don’t know that, don’t know that life will be taking large chunk out of us.” Or: “Love ruined people’s lives, the way our parents said drugs would.”
I would like to know how you’re able to come so close to a young man’s thoughts and feelings and how you’re able to reconstruct them in the exact words.
MS: I have a boy, I love a boy, and though in most of the central parts of this novel, he’s not represented, I’ve used his lingo, his friends’ diction and slang and some of the games they played. The boy I’ve created is, in some ways, a mother’s fantasy. Only a mother could dream up a boy who is obsessed with… his parents. This book started for me with the boy’s vantage. I thought of it as a door open only one small wedge. I wanted to limit the love story, to set it within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness.
I’m curious about how you reconstructed Beijing in Kinder Than Solitude. The city is almost a character in the novel. It’s a palpable presence. I’ve visited China and spent a week in Beijing, and yet my own sensory impressions of it are far less vivid. Your Beijing has replaced mine. What is it like writing about Beijing in English for an English speaking audience?
YL: When I was working on the first draft of Kinder Than Solitude, I wrote to a friend and said that this novel was also going to be my love letter to Beijing. I have given my fondest memories of Beijing to the three teenage characters, not only the tourist sites where Boyang and Moran took Ruyu (and where visitors go today), but also the fabric of everyday life: old men sitting under a tree and expecting a fresh and forgettable story from Ruyu; Boyang and Moran on bicycles, free as Mongolian children on horsebacks; puddles after the rain; watermelon rinds rotting by the roadside.
Several Westerners living in Beijing have commented to me that the city I write about is mostly gone, but its people haven’t changed much. Human nature evolves much more slower than a city, which is heartening, as that’s why I love to read Jane Austen and Dickens. So writing about Beijing in English is like writing about California in English: the landscapes are characters that interact with the people.
Casebook comments on many issues about contemporary life, yet it does not have the self-consciousness that some books do, striving to point out to readers how they are socially aware, for instance. Can you talk about the balance of writing about a society without feeling constrained by the society?
MS: I’ve always written perhaps a little from the inside out, and so I hope the reader will glean all kinds of context that I don’t always overtly provide. I’m extremely interested, though, in what it feels like to be in all the different places on America’s economic spectrum, and how that pinch is felt inside the body and the sensibility.
Yiyun, you’ve cited William Trevor as your primary teacher. Which seems most significant to you—your national history, or your literary legacy?
YL: I often think of one’s national history as one’s genes: something given, something predetermined. Literary legacy is, at least in my case, a choice. I only started writing in my late 20s, and by then I could decide whom to include in my literary genes. Writers I’ve been rereading in the past few years while working on the novel: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, and of course William Trevor who, as you mentioned, is a primary influence. So my literary legacy comes from Irish literature and Russian literature.
MS: You’ve recently become a US citizen. It’s hard to imagine either Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized.
YL: I became a citizen in August, 2012. It’s interesting that you say it’s hard to imagine Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized: I think I knew the immigration status of both characters, and yet I refrained from making it too obvious in the novel. They have both become American citizens (Ruyu needs an American passport and a Chinese visa to return to Beijing). For Moran, her American citizenship offers psychological shelter from the violence she does not understand; for Ruyu, the citizenship is, like everything else in her life, something she accepts and can discard without a second thought. In a deeper sense, however, both of them are so bound to the past that it is hard to imagine that being American citizens would change them in any fundamental way.