Rachel Cusk on Yiyun Li, fiction, internal enemies, motherhood, sons and life as nothing but an attempt to escape:
“No one thinks of suicide as a courageous endeavor to kill time,” she wrote in Dear Friend: then, it was her own courage she was questioning, her own entitlement to strike back at the body that lives in time and feels pain. The formidable strength this kind of thinking entails has perhaps not been wholly apparent to Li. “Nikolai” has a lacerating wit, which he deploys plentifully in his robust questioning of his mother’s intelligence, to the extent that one recalls that “you” for whom the author of Dear Friend could never be good enough:
I was dense. Once Nikolai told me that J. [his younger brother] had made an insulting joke about me: Mommy, you’re dense. You’re so dense if we put you next to a black hole, the black hole wouldn’t suck you in but would be sucked in by you.
'The Christian philosophy of death—that the dead one is merely in the next room—might serve here to illustrate a very different denial of reality, for whether she knows it or not, it is at this point only the thinnest of walls that separates Li from the realization of her own beauty and power. Where Reasons End is a work of respect, the kind of respect few parents are capable of feeling for their child. Li is a far-more-than-good-enough mother. She has broken the chain of repetition, and from there it is one very small and very hard step to reach love and respect for oneself:
"We can always be good, do better, try our best, but how perfect can we be before we can love ourselves and let others love us? And who, my dear child, has taken the word lovable out of your dictionary and mine, and replaced it with perfect?
I wish you had made me an enemy, I said, rather than yourself. Mothers, I thought, would be perfect for that role.
You can’t be that for me, Mommy, Nikolai said. I’ve found a perfect enemy in myself."
Yiyun Li may feel that it is now impossible for her to continue the journey to truth and self-realization that she began in Dear Friend, and that the only option is to go back. I hope she can go forward: I believe she’ll find the ground firm there.'
Read the wonderful review here.
This is the dirty secret of both parents and children, you are never good enough. And to this endless cycle of not being good enough there are two basic responses: some find the enemy in themselves, some find the enemy in the other.