Yiyun Li: “The Science of Flight”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Yiyun Li’s “The Science of Flight” was originally published in the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about this story.  My experience with other Yiyun Li stories has been one of struggle — a struggle to keep my mind on it; a struggle to finish it — that usually has paid off, somewhat, in the end.  However, I have never been convinced I would like to purchase and read one of her books.  This story, while having its moments where I thought it would all pay off, only pushed me further away.

There is promise here, and that promise might be realized for some readers.  In the beginning, Zichen, a Chinese immigrant to America, has decided to go to London for her annual November holiday instead of to China.  She is so consistent that this inexplicable change causes minor hub-bub in with her two co-workers, Henry and Ted.  They assume her yearly trips to China are to visit her parents out of filial duty, and Zichen does all she can to preserve this misconception.  Mostly, though, the hub-bub is just a way to pass the time with friendly co-workers; she’s not really that important to them, though there is obvious respect.

We get a sense that Zichen has a secret, inner life when she muses: “There was a reason to visit a place where one’s name was unpronounceable, Zichen thought, just as there was a reason that her parents continued to share a life in their daughter’s mind.”

Zichen is calming to other people.  She is constant (which is why her trip to London is strange), she never has visitors to her apartment, she doesn’t let people know about her passion (if you can call it that) for studying Latin for fear they will see her as eccentric — she basically wants people to forget about her when she is not there.

There are reasons for this, and we learn more about her parents and about her own failed marriage as the story progresses.  We learn about her immigration to China.  All of this ties together, but getting there is a bit excruciating and doesn’t satisfy anyway.  This is a relatively short story, but I found myself distracted constantly.  I kept looking to see how many pages were left, though the story is only six pages long.  It has its moments, and perhaps I just was off-balance, but I’m happy to move on from this one, and I think I can continue to live safely under the assumption that Yiyun Li is not for me.

7 thoughts on “Yiyun Li: “The Science of Flight””

  1. New fiction forum up!

  2. Tim says:

    Hi Trevor,

    I found this to be a cool idea, but for me, it failed to deliver. What did you think?

  3. I haven’t read it yet, Tim. I got the magazine last night and was up working until 1:30. I’ve been working all morning now, too — but hopefully sometime today things will slow down and I’ll read this then!

  4. Tim, I didn’t like it. Not much at all.

    My thoughts posted above.

  5. Ken says:

    Well….I LOVED this story. Easily my favorite of the 20 under 40. I found it extremely moving and sad in showing how lonely and isolated so many people’s lives are. I liked how it slowly revealed information and I found its quiet, poetic, haunting style to be very affecting. I didn’t at all find this slow or challenging. We disagree again I guess.

  6. Ha! Ken, I can just see us together on a selection board or prize jury!

  7. While I appreciated the way that the author developed the loneliness and isolation, explained them and, most important, described Zichen’s defensive strategy, my final impression is very similar to Trevor’s. Perhaps if I felt more inclined to explore that loneliness and isolation in immigrant lives in America, I would have been more positive — but as I noted in my comment on Alarcon’s story, a number of short story writers (Lahiri, Adichie, Diaz and Engel) have done it more effectively for me.

Leave a Reply