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"On the Street Where You Live"
by Yiyun Li
Originally published in the January 9, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.

I love Yiyun Li’s work. Now that William Trevor has died and since it appears Alice Munro meant it when she said she was retiring, Yiyun Li is a great torchbearer for short fiction.

Please discuss the story below. Let’s hope it’s a great one!

By | 2017-01-02T18:34:53+00:00 January 2nd, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Yiyun Li|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Eric January 5, 2017 at 1:36 am

    Trevor, FYI–the “read the full post” link for this entry is broken.

  2. David January 7, 2017 at 11:12 am

    If you read any single paragraph of this story in isolation you will probably get the strong impression that Li is a very talented writer and that this might be a very interesting story. You would be right about the first thought and wrong about the second. Unfortunately, the story is just a jumble of ideas and moments that I suppose Li hoped might add up to some sort of cohesive whole in the end. Or maybe not. The interview with her seems to suggest that she just wrote bits without any plan to where the story might go, so it might not be a surprise if in the end it is just that – a long series of directionless bits.
    .
    If there is one overarching story here it is about Becky’s experience of being the mother of an autistic child. We get a number of different thoughts, feelings, anxieties, concerns, etc that all seem like they could well be the ones a parent of an autistic child might have, but is there really any insight here? I imagine that this story might be popular among parents of autistic children who might alternately say things like “she has done a wonderful job describing what it’s really like” or “she clearly has no idea about the life of the parent of a special needs child.” So in the end I see some observations, but do not feel any better informed.
    .
    Oddly, I find there is something revelatory about the inclusion of the discussion of splashing paint on a Jackson Pollock as vandalism. To many, Pollock seemed to drip paint on canvases in a random way that anyone could do, raising questions about what value the resulting art might have and what validity interpretations of his art could have. Might it not all be just projecting clothes on the naked Emperor? In this story (as confessed in the interview) we have a writer who has dripped bits of story on the pages in a seeming random way. Individually the fragments seem like they could be part of some greater whole, but when we step back and look at it all together there might be nothing more than what we project is there.
    .
    If Li writes other stories by getting an idea and developing that idea through to the end, then I would love to read that. But this slapping little pieces together does not provide satisfying reading. I get tired of authors who talk as if stories exist and the writer only “discovers” what the story is and who the characters are as they write. Being a writer means giving the ideas direction, not just putting down what comes into your mind and being “surprised” by your own work. If the author does not know why the characters do what they do and why that is important to the story, chances are there are no good answers to these questions. Li has a lot of very good parts of stories here, but they are more like a bag of colourful pieces from many puzzles than parts of one larger picture.

  3. Eric January 8, 2017 at 5:29 am

    While I don’t really disagree with any of David’s criticisms, I enjoyed this story anyway. In a sense it is the reverse of last week’s Bordas story, where a tired premise was was at times enlivened by some sharp, witty asides. This time it was the main plot and characters which interested me, while the asides usually just got in the way–the documenting-personalities-in-the-journal-thing in particular didn’t work for me, as it seemed much more like an author’s device to make the story interesting than something a real person would likely do. But as the story went on, and focused in on the protagonist’s struggles to understand her son’s condition and find a way to help him, I became more and more engrossed. I particularly liked the Vonnegut reference, and the bubbles in the champagne. At least in the second half, the seeming jumble mostly made sense as part of a narrative of Becky trying to help her son, and struggle against her own limitations in doing so.

  4. David January 8, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    Eric, it is interesting you mention the Vonnegut reference. In the interview Li talks about this and the idea her character’s odd feeling that Vonnegut has plagiarized her. Also in the interview she (slightly mis-)quotes C.S. Lewis who wrote in The Screwtape Letters, “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” When I read that I was immediately reminded of the introduction to Vonnegut’s Mother Night where he tells us that the moral to that novel is “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Vonnegut didn’t plagiarize Becky, but perhaps he borrowed, just a little bit, from Lewis.

  5. Dan January 9, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    I’ve read and admired Li’s two short story collections and two novels. She’s skilled at non-judgmental and clear-eyed portrayal of isolated lives and unclear motives. She observes her characters with neither sympathy nor antipathy. I agree with David that “On the street where you live” contains several “little pieces,” and it’s not as cohesive as I would like. But for me, the little pieces contribute to Becky’s recognition that Jude “did not have the talent to be anyone other than himself”: “a piece of art is like a child: you can’t use your mediocre imagination to change anything about it”; her references to SpongeBob SquarePants; and the Girl Scouts and Wee Sing song, “make new friends, but keep the old,” which presumably Jude will never enjoy as other children do. Finally and especially exciting for me, “On the street where you live” seems to demonstrate Li’s increasing facility with English since the 2006 publication of her first short story collection; for her own observations on this, her “To speak is to blunder” in the December 26th, 2016 New Yorker is revelatory.

  6. Roger January 9, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    I’m very surprised to find a writer as talented as Li producing a story as bad as this. It is much too expository, often reading like an essay. Other than the narrator (whom we get too much of), the other characters do not come alive on the page. In the interview, Li says she has been writing lots of essays recently, leading me to wonder whether she was still in “essay mode” while working on this piece.

    I seem to recall reading excellent stories by Li that were either set in China or center on Chinese immigrants to the United States. I’m not sure if this is her first fiction that didn’t depend on Chinese characters in some way. I wonder if the problem is that here, she has stepped into new territory where she is not entirely comfortable.

  7. Sean H January 10, 2017 at 3:23 am

    I’m down on this one as well. I have enjoyed Li’s writing in the past and one of her essays, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” is a near masterpiece. That said, I don’t see her as deserving the MacArthur and here she’s sort of on autopilot. She went to the Iowa MFA program, and now teaches at UC Davis. Her protagonist has moved from Iowa to the bay area! Way to exhibit some imagination there. And David’s critiques above are pretty on point. This is definitely a writer with some talent and sentence-to-sentence or idea-to-idea there is some hope, but there’s no cohesion, the story as a whole doesn’t add up to much of anything. It’s got a short attention span. The minute something starts to hold your interest, she abandons it. When she weaves it back in (like with Ossie Gulliver) it doesn’t feel particularly earned or relevant. I liked the kid too, the sign he makes, his fear of monomania. The grasp at “humanism” at the end is particularly noxious and feels the most dishonest. Someone who is robbed at gunpoint and violated like that is not going to be forgiving, they’re not going to have some epiphany about what “really matters” and “the bigger picture.” Misplaced politicization at the end there by Li. She’s not without talent, but this story is mostly a failure, sub par stuff, a 3, or maybe a 4 out of 10 at best.

  8. Eric January 10, 2017 at 5:03 am

    Roger–what is it that makes this story particularly expository? My (no doubt amateurish and imperfect) of “expository” is it means something like “intended to explain and illuminate certain ideas or things”. I didn’t get the feeling that the author was trying to teach or explain anything.

  9. Eric January 10, 2017 at 5:05 am

    Dan–thanks for pointing me to the “To Speak Is To Blunder” piece, that was fascinating. I didn’t get it all–I suspect it will take me years to get my arms around the themes Li goes into here–but I found the effort worthwhile.

  10. Roger January 10, 2017 at 10:09 am

    Eric, what I mean by expository is consistent with the definition you cite – the story seemed unduly focused on the main character’s thoughts, with comparatively little of it devoted to scene. I’d much rather read about what characters are saying and doing than what they are thinking. I’m more engaged as a reader of fiction – especially a short story – when I’m inferring the characters’ thoughts rather than having those thoughts set forth expressly for long passages. You know, show, don’t tell. More life on the page that way. After all, why should a writer even have characters (or plot) if her goal is to set forth thoughts at length? Just write an essay instead, IMO.

    This is not to say that exposition is never ok or that it can’t be essential to a great story. There is plenty of exposition in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” for instance. And if the writer is an amazing stylist, he or she can get away with more exposition than Li, who generally writes in a plain, direct way.

    Now, there are legions of Virginia Woolf fans who would strongly disagree with me, but that is a discussion for another day ….

  11. Eric January 10, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    OK, thanks much, I see where you are coming from now. As with David, your criticisms make sense but I liked the story regardless.

  12. Greg January 14, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    Thank you David for expanding on the meaning of the Jackson Pollock reference….and nice catch on how the author herself is like Pollock!

    And thank you Dan for helping me grasp how the “little pieces” were constructed by the author to drive home her message that some people will inevitably be who they are.

    Lastly, your review Sean was so sharp, as usual. You correctly made me realize how preposterous the ending was….and how truly brilliant the boy’s sign was!

  13. Ken February 16, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    I don’t have a problem with interior monologue or essayistic stories which seem simply like possible ways to construct something. I also didn’t find incoherence here as not only did her perceptions, which were often odd, perhaps mirror her son’s state (no one seemed to pick up on this), but there was a consistency to her ideas–she’s not quite comfortable with the standard line about things–whether its the “advice” you give a potential suicide or the standard treatments of the autistic–yet she has also been highly conformist in many other ways. Her perceptions are often so creative and interesting that they more than held this together for me.

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