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‘Where Reasons End’ Examines the Power and Limitations of Language

‘Where Reasons End’ Examines the Power and Limitations of Language

Where Reasons End is a novel without an easily identifiable setting. The narrator, an unnamed mother, sometimes states that she is in her kitchen, or driving her car. But these are only occasional moments of physicality in an otherwise invisible world, one made solely of words: the majority of the book is an imagined conversation between the mother and her teenage son, who has taken his own life. How did mother and son enter into this dialogue? “For one thing,” she explains, “I had made time irrelevant.”

The novel unfolds in the first few months after the woman’s son, Nikolai, commits suicide. She grieves; she accepts fresh-baked cookies from neighbors; she picks up her younger son from school. A writer and professor of writing, she turns to books for solace, particularly poetry. Mostly, though, she talks to Nikolai: sometimes by writing, but usually in her head.

The book is not a mystery: the mother doesn’t search for missed clues, or attempt to come to a conclusion about why Nikolai has chosen to end his life. Instead, the two talk to each other as they did in his life, and these conversations, which she describes as a kind of contract that they have both entered into, provide her with solace in the face of his absence. She tries not to dwell sentimentally on the past, nor “recount trifles to the dead” by telling him mundane details of each day. Instead, they discuss the mother’s writing and teaching, and Nikolai’s hobbies: baking, music, knitting.

Still, Nikolai was a teenager, and it’s little surprise that most of their conversations take the form of arguments. In dialogue, Nikolai is frank, quick-witted, stubborn. He enjoys proving his point, and teasing his mother. “No offense,” he says to her, “But your vocabulary isn’t very expansive.” They spar over the use of adjectives—she abhors them; he delights in piling them on one after another—and what we can learn from the etymology of words. A frequent topic is cliché: how it slips into our language despite our best attempts to avoid it. Both mother and son agree that carelessness in speech is harmful yet difficult to avoid, and in much of their conversation, both sides yearn to come to the root of what they mean to say.

Yet they also acknowledge the limitations of language. In one instance, they search for a way to describe the space that they occupy when they talk to each other. Nikolai has to make up a new word: he calls it “aftertime.” In another instance, the mother notes that while the word widow exists for someone who has lost their spouse, no such term has been designated for a parent who has lost their child.

Where Reasons End was written in the months after Li lost her son to suicide. It is her third novel, and it follows her 2017 memoir Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You in Your Life, which recounts her own struggle with depression and attempts at suicide. In both her fiction and memoir, Li’s readers can expect a spare beauty from her prose, fine-tuned metaphors from an author who knows that great care is required to illuminate subjects as thorny and intimate as grief and depression.

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Like Li, the mother in Where Reasons End has a reverence for words used well. She has received an outpouring of letters from Nikolai’s friends, and she admires the language they use in their consolation, so much less inhibited than the words of adults: “His friends, when they wrote, did not have to resort to the ready words because of helplessness, awkwardness, or politeness. They wrote from a place in which Nikolai was still one of them…” In this novel about the potency of language and love, Li, too, has crafted a world in which the dead are still with us, if only we reach out and speak to them.

Where Reasons End
By Yiyun Li
Random House
Published February 5, 2019

Yiyun Li is the author of five books of fiction and one memoir. She is a native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. She teaches at Princeton University.

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