It’s awful to learn that seven months after Dear Friend... was published, Li’s 16-year-old son, Vincent, killed himself. Dedicated to his memory, Where Reasons End takes the form of a dialogue between a grieving writer and her son after his suicide... The tone is both astringent and faintly mischievous, recalling the dialogue in a JM Coetzee novel or the wordplay of Ali Smith and Lydia Davis. Language is relentlessly inspected for imprecision as the boy – here called Nikolai, “a name he gave himself” – chides his mother’s new embrace of cliches and adjectives...Li’s narrative experiment proves admirably fit for purpose. A novel in which nothing happens is liable to be dismissed as the result of a writer playing for time. Here... the single defining event is the one thing we wish hadn’t happened; playing for time is the point.
Li is an escape artist, but she is also a mother who won’t permit the escape of her son. The only place she can keep him is in fiction. ‘Where else can we meet but in stories now?’ She is trying to ‘catch words yet to be said’, to remember the future of which she’s been cheated. ‘Time points only in one direction,’ she writes early on, and so to write this book she has ‘made time irrelevant’. This reminds Nikolai of Through the Looking-Glass. When Alice complains that ‘I can’t remember things before they happen’ the White Queen chides her: ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’ And when, towards the end of the novel, Nikolai says, ‘I am in fiction. I am fiction now,’ what he means is that only in fiction can time’s arrow be disregarded, so memory can recall things that haven’t yet happened – like ‘this year’s flypapers catching next year’s flies before they are born’.
In the peculiar “nowhere” she creates in Where Reasons End, Li maps out a “realer” understanding of the feelings that arise after a child’s death. The book is dedicated to Li’s son, who killed himself in 2017... Li’s key preoccupation is with how to express the unspeakable. She gestures towards a solution in stating this trio of what language lacks: precision, originality and perfection. So she searches for precision by digging up the roots of English to question layers of meaning... “Words fall short, but sometimes their shadows can reach the unspeakable.” Words may indeed fall short, but Li’s talent opens our eyes to what glistens in the depths of their shadows.
There is an often-repeated cliché of the novel-writing process: that characters seem to write themselves. Here, this fact provides a reprieve from the silence left behind in the absence of the protagonist’s (and/or Li’s) son. Dear Friend demonstrates how, in fiction, there is the potential to find freedom and escape from life. In Where Reasons End, however, Li finds that, in the unusual cross between fiction and autobiography she writes in, there is the potential for freedom and escape from a death.
As always, Li writes with a shimmering and deeply felt precision. In previous novels, she’s taken on a larger canvas: The Vagrants was a social novel about hardship in a Chinese village. But it feels now as though her whole writing life has been paring down towards this more intimate form. Its compression is hard won, the result both of harrowing lived experience and of moving through realism to something a bit like autofiction, insistent on its integrity. She is no longer creating characters, but giving us their voices in a kind of sustained present, never concealing the fact that we are reading words typed on a page. And her sustained investigation of the relationship between thought and feeling has become the central drama.
There is little story, as such: its 16 chapters – one for each year of the son’s life – are conversations only, each sequence interrogating meaning. The meaning of individual words, the meaning of existence itself, the meaning of the conventions we adhere to in our quotidian existence: all are brought under the microscope of this bookish mother and her precocious, plain-speaking son... This is a hard book to read. The narrator stares unblinking at her terrible grief, and yet evades it, and not only thanks to the words that mother and son bat back and forth like shuttlecocks. “I did not unfriend or unfollow life, Mommy,” Nikolai says. “Had I done that you would not have found me. We would not have been talking.” The lost boy is in the pages of this novel – and far beyond it, too.
The writing is raw and deeply affecting; Li’s free-flowing recreation of the sparring, sometimes prickly back-and-forth between a highly intelligent, perfectionist teenager and his mum is interspersed with her acknowledgements that it is all a construction, and that, at the crucial moment, language fails her: “None of the words... would release me from the void left by him.”...
Heart-rendingly, Li finds a journal, briefly begun when her son was five, that he’d called Sixty Years of Nikolai because, seeing a copy of his mother’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, he’d thought “a book had to have a title of some number of years of something”. Responding to Nikolai’s just 16 years with aching intelligence, Where Reasons End is a remarkable novel of memory and mourning.
At first glance, this book seems constructed of very cerebral debates between mother and son — even the epigraph, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Argument,” includes the line: “argue argue argue with me.” But the arguments in the novel never build. They eddy. Nikolai picks a little at his mother; she accepts it, almost gratefully. As the title alerts us, this book takes place in a territory beyond reason, in all its connotations — beyond explanation or understanding. The mother does not require them. In the final reckoning, there is nothing she needs from Nikolai other than his company, his ghost; to carry him for a moment more, to keep the story going.