On the shelf
the goose book
FSG: 368 pages, $28
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Yiyun Li laughs a lot. In the hour we spent on Zoom, almost every time he spoke there was a moment when he would stop, he would look down, then up, and laugh. “Am I starting to sound crazy?” he told her a couple of times (she wasn’t), before laughing again. Talk of Li’s work is sometimes drawn out in his sadness, a description Li is well aware of: “People find me gloomy,” he said, then winced; we both laughed.
Three of the friends I recommended Li’s new novel to, “the goose book”, he paused for a moment and then asked, concerned, it’s so sad I understood this recurring question; I was horrified by that too. Li’s books depict the world so sharply they could draw blood, but they are also shot through, I think, with extraordinary hope. While they often don’t end particularly well for the characters, they do possess a fullness, a deep love for both language and character that leaves me, if not exactly happy, at least completely sated by the end.
“The Book of Goose,” Li’s fifth novel (there are also two short story collections and a memoir), is no exception. Yet it is a departure in many ways: historical, set in post-WWII western France, preoccupied almost entirely with the lives of children. (Our 28-year-old narrator counts the years when she was between 12 and 14 years old.) It is a story of adolescent female friendship, of larger networks of exploitation, and of an artist in the making.
But the beauty of reading a body of work as extensive and rich as Li’s is that you can see how the best novels defy summary. Like all of Li’s books, “Goose” does not “endure,” as Li describes it, because “endurement is for the reader”; it moves unapologetically through time, attuned to the inner workings of its characters without ever dwelling on the many violences and losses they experience.
“Goose” began for Li as all his stories have: with the characters. She talks about them as if they lived inside her, as if her process were reduced to listening very carefully: “They came together as a couple for two moments. One was when they were talking to each other and Fabienne said, ‘how does happiness grow?’ And Agnes said, ‘can you grow happiness?’ And Fabienne said, ‘yes, we’re going to plant potatoes and beets…’ And [then] Agnes has this moment of disappointment and thinks, well, shouldn’t happiness be a little more outstanding, more extraordinary than that?
Both Fabienne and Agnes have mostly absent parents. They have each other and little else. Fabienne, at least initially, is in charge. She persuades Agnes to play all sorts of naughty “games” and eventually to transcribe the violent stories she conjures up into a book that is published under Agnes’s name. Briefly, the book makes Agnes famous. The girls separate.
The book we are reading is also written by Agnes, now married and living in America, after Fabienne died in childbirth at the age of 28. Agnes writes, “or opened the notebook to this new page, but sometimes one person’s death is another person’s parole. I may not have gained total freedom, but I am free enough.”
Li tells me that the characters were presented to him together, “yin and yang,” just as a dyad. However, the book begins with Fabienne’s death. The reality of this, the clarity with which Li sees and understands both the connectedness of these girls and their inevitable separation, comes from something else he talked about a lot, which is the way a writer is constantly working to capture and reflect the world. Li used the analogy of a mirror that everyone carries on their shoulder, “but that mirror doesn’t just capture reality, not just reflections of reality. Each of us does something through that mirror that creates a new and separate world, a combination of real and unreal.”
I asked him what he is most interested in capturing in his mirror. “It’s kind of like 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 that her mirror is particularly attentive to “both psychological and physical violence; violence so small that if you are not acute, you will not feel it”.
This too has a whiff of the mystical. (And it was here that Li made a comment about sounding cuckoo.) But he also capitalizes on the precision with which his books ask the reader to tune in to the realities of his characters, even if the most we can capture of them is simply a shade.
Before earning her MFA 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 about something and you can know a little bit more based on that information.” She says, of Agnes, “We can’t get the chemicals out of it, we can’t get everything out of it. And yet she 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, in the months after Vincent’s death, she wrote Where Reasons End, a novel consisting of conversations between a mother and the ghost of her son. Capture an almost unfathomable shadow. I’ve read the book twice and can only tell you how my body feels every time I think about it: dizzy and amazed, grateful, devastated, shockingly alive and dazed to be.
All of this is made possible by Li’s extraordinary attention to language. She is a famously devoted reader, often immersing herself in many books at the same time over a period of weeks. She says that she feels more respectful to the writer if she lingers like this. She doesn’t write every day, but she will never go a day without reading.
In 2020, with Brigid Hughes at 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. This experience turned into a book, “Tolstoy Together,” which A Public Space published last year. In the cover letter, Li writes: “I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide. In these times, one does want to read an author so deeply moved by the world that he might seem impassive in writing it.”
Reading this, having spoken with her, having recently felt compelled (before receiving this assignment) to reread both “Where Reasons End” and her memoir, “Dear friend, I am writing to you from my life” – felt like a perfect description of the power of Li’s own work: his attunement to the violence his characters experience, his willingness to bear their pain even as his fiction remains unmoved.
Although time has changed somewhat for Li, in recent years she has let her fiction seep into her more fully. She recalls a reader she met a few years ago asking her how she was when she finished with a novel; she said it is “when the book has hurt me”. In the case of Fabienne and Agnes it was their inevitable separation, the requirement that Fabienne die from the start. “For so long, I allowed myself to think: wouldn’t it be great if they could stay together forever and ever? But that is a moment in her life. Can you stay at that time? Can you keep that moment alive? No, no one can do that.”
Strong is a critic and author of the upcoming novel “Flights.”