“A Flawless Silence”
by Yiyun Li
from the April 23, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

This week we get another story from short story master Yiyun Li. Though Li is widely considered a master — I consider her a master, too — her stories haven’t necessarily been well received here in the discussion. Let’s see if that changes this time around.

I’m not at a place where I can look up much in the way of introduction on the story, and I don’t think Li needs any introduction. Her latest book is a memoir called Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. I haven’t read it, but I know some love it. Surely there’s another story collection on the way.

But let’s get to work on “A Flawless Silence.” Please comment below! Leave your thoughts on the story, on Li’s work in general, etc.

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By |2018-04-16T11:56:53-04:00April 16th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Yiyun Li|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Sean H April 17, 2018 at 3:50 am

    Feels like she took a “Yiyun Li Template” and applied it to her neighborhood in NorCal. This one is rushed, and lacks Li’s signature weirdness. It’s almost a cliché to say she was a better writer back when she was suicidal and depressed, but this reads far too much like the scribblings of a suburban mom who’s as canonical and established as could be trying to have Something To Say! about the post-Trump election period and its aftermath. This is simply a bad fit for subject and creator. Leave that stuff to A.M. Homes or Rick Moody or Jonathan Franzen. The wedging in of the old man’s story and Min’s disdain for him is Li rather transparently grappling with her own fame and mainstream acceptance. It would also have been a far more interesting choice to make at least one of the Trump voters the female of the couple.

    The chicken stuff is recycled from her better, earlier works. Sections like the following are doing way too much telling and not nearly enough showing: “The one-legged doll remained in her possession. Min did not remember ever feeling sad about the severed limb. A doll was a doll. She had not been a sentimental child.”

    There’s a lack of originality and vibrancy too. See the following description. “He looked like a professor from a film, with his wire-rimmed glasses and impeccably parted silver hair.” Anything there strike you as particularly artful or incisive or new?

    Min’s mom seemed interesting, but we get little of her. Max and Rich’s relationship has potential too, would’ve loved to see her tackle that in more depth. Some of the best and most fecund work in the story is in lines like: “She had loved her son, still loved him—of this much she was certain, though she didn’t know if she liked him. Can you love a person without liking him? Max and Rich had a fraught relationship, but they viewed the world similarly. For both, failing to calculate the price of every move in life was a character flaw; not taking advantage of someone else was a sin.” However, Li unfortunately adds one more line (and lets it stand alone as its own paragraph!) and it’s pretty terrible, almost ruining what came before.

    “You’re so ageist” is a nice bit of satire of the identity politics parroting child of Bay Area 2016-2018.

    Rich’s fifth-grade teacher and the material from there until the end of that section is a strong bit of writing, Li regaining some of her former skill and adeptness. It is capacious and digs deep into her characters.

    The conclusion, however, is both too sudden and unearned. It’s an addendum, and doesn’t really close the story. What’s far more interesting is how the old man will respond, not that Min, in the midst of a moment of insomnia, chose anger over clarity, “infected” by the banality of the post-Trump era and the current president’s penchant for artless language choices.

    The first and last essays/sections (the rest of the book is so-so) in Li’s memoir from last year—Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life—are far superior. Seek those out instead.

  2. SM April 17, 2018 at 11:09 am

    I’m not sure if the story worked for me either. The political noise is just too overwhelming. Li says in her interview that the story “cannot let itself be bullied” by the public narrative, but it seems to me that’s exactly what happened here. I don’t know. The children I believed. The couple arguing over the election I didn’t.
    The children though. Is there anything more tragic than a third-grader calling another a “Republican” or “Democrat”? This is the part of the story that touches me, the anxiety for how kids are being affected by the crazed rhetorics out there. Still, “children grow up, and they will solve problems we can’t solve for them.” The chicks I recognized from her story “Kindness” as well, but it seems here they’re symbolizing the meaningless waffles-vs-pancakes labeling, so I didn’t have a problem with it.
    I smiled as Sean’s comment on his disdain for the following sentence: “Sometimes Min pitied her future daughter-in-law, whoever she was, and wished that the girl could have chosen more wisely.”, because I quite liked it. I’m myself Chinese, and strenuous relationships between possessive mothers and daughter-in-laws are highly dramatized in Chinese pop culture. Half the TV shows are about them. To see a somewhat apathetic mother was refreshing to me. Questioning whether to love or like one’s family, however, not so much.
    The imagery of sad middle-aged men idling in alleyways is too familiar it hurts. So is self-content ones recounting their life-changing moments. It is all too easy to mock fathers.
    My least favorite line: “She was good-looking—not in a striking way, but she had a classic look, like a figure in a Ming-dynasty painting or a period movie, her shoulders narrowing compliantly, her neck long, her complexion clear, her eyes and nose and mouth arranged in a pleasing manner.” Very expected descriptions. “Compliantly” should’ve been switched with “pleasing”.
    My favorite: “perhaps a marriage should be more like an illness that the couple agrees to submit to so that they can recover together. Some succeed, others fail, yet two people can’t remain in their separate afflictions and hope for the best.” Classic Li musings, dark, seductive, precise.

  3. David April 18, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    This is the third story I have read by Li. About the first one I wrote that it seemed like a jumble of pieces from several different jigsaw puzzles which don’t add up to a coherent picture. About the second one I said it was like bunch of pieces all from the same puzzle, but where there were not enough to make it clear what the picture is. This time I’d say it’s like a bunch of pieces all from the same puzzle and there are enough to reveal the picture.
    .
    The picture of Min I found to be quite compelling. She is not quite a victim and not quite trapped by her circumstances, but a combination of her various situations through her life and her meek personality have left her with a lot less control of her life than would be idea. Much of that limitation is seen also as a function of her gender, as she initially deals with the possibility of an arranged marriage, then the advances of a lecherous older man, then the business arrangement marriage she ends up with. Her husband tries to use his financial position as a weapon over her in persuading her they should have more children and wants to control how (or if) she talks about politics. But she finds a way to make things work. The story even ends with Min breaking her long “flawless” silence and beginning to become more assertive. It is an optimistic story, ultimately.
    .
    SM, the passage you mention about her fictional future daughter-in-law was one I quite liked as well. It did not have the same cultural resonance for me as it did for you, but I saw it as her being happy to even speculatively exert some sort of power in one of the few relationships she might be able to do that. She needs to resort to a hypothetical person to have any real authority over someone.
    .
    As for the couple arguing over the election, I was apprehensive about the idea of including the election as a story element. Trump is an easy punchline and I don’t need to hear more of the complaints that are all too familiar in the news about him to also creep into my fiction reading, but I thought Li used the election well here. The Trump-Clinton dynamic and the issue of how gender demographics did affect the outcome serves as a nice broad parallel to Min’s general circumstance. It also allows her to use the couple that fights about politics to stand as a contrast to Min, who doesn’t see it worth discussing at all with her husband.
    .
    And, SM, the sentence you quote at the end about comparing marriage to an illness was one I also quite liked. I am not ready, as Trevor and perhaps other people are, to say I think she is a “master” of the short story (that kind of description seems to me to be used far too easily), but I am very encouraged by this story. I concluded my comments here on “A Small Flame” (the second Li story I read) by saying “I fear this might be still a little short of being the great story I think Li might be capable of writing.” I don’t think I’d call this story great, but it is very good. In my comments about “On the Street Where You Live” (the first Li story I read) I said “Li is a very talented writer” and “if Li writes other stories by getting an idea and developing that idea through to the end, then I would love to read that.” “A Flawless Silence” is the kind of story I was looking for then.

  4. SM April 20, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    David, I’d recommend her story “A Sheltered Woman”, also published in the New Yorker. That was my first encounter with Li, and even though I couldn’t quite grasp the story at first, I was instantly mesmerized by it.
    It’s easier for me to enjoy characters that I can identify or sympathize with. I find that happens less naturally with Li’s stories. Instead, she directs me to people that I chose not to pay attention to or could not understand – the quiet, dignified ones.

  5. David April 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks, SM. It’s still available online so I’ll check that one out

  6. Sean H April 22, 2018 at 3:46 am

    “A Man Like Him” is the best of her short fiction that I’ve read.

  7. Dan Friedman April 23, 2018 at 11:44 am

    I’ve read Li’s two short story collections, her two novels, and her recent memoir: this may qualify me as Yiyun Li geriatric fanboy. Li’s short story collections and her memoir are elegant in their sparse, pointed prose; her short story collections are admirable in their usually unadorned plots; and many of her characters are memorable in their aloneness. But in “A Flawless Silence,” Li seemed to let herself be somewhat diverted from her strengths. The aspect of the story that worked best for me and that I enjoyed were Min’s increasingly subversive push-back towards attempted male domination. One example is Min’s ”vindictive joy that the girls already knew how to keep the truth about him [Rich] from the world. In a few years, they would be teen-agers, Emmie would be high-strung, unable to mask her moods. Deanna would be coyer, but when she was ready to sabotage her father’s authority she would do so with more tact, and with more devastation, too.”. Another example are Li’s final two paragraphs, where she considers her response to the lonely yet creepy professor:
    ”That night, when Min failed to fall asleep, she opened the man’s e-mail from the night before. In a large font that she hoped would be easy for him to read, she typed, ‘Please stop writing me.’
    Then, on second thought, she erased that and wrote, ‘Go to hell.’”

  8. Greg April 29, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    Thank you Sean, David, SM and Dan for your insights on this story. You all added so much for me!

    I also found that this story hit some high points. For example, I loved the quotes shared above and the following ones:

    “Motherhood was like one of those contracts that were automatically renewed. As long as you did nothing, a charge would show up on your credit card. What’s wrong, though, with letting the automatic take over one’s life?”

    “They were realistic people, and marriage was weather. They lived in it without any desire to control it or change it. They knew each other well enough to know the forecast.”

  9. Ken May 1, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    I liked this and it was greatly aided by the pitiable state of the two previous weeks’ stories–the tiresome yammering by Bordas about nothing and the reportage disguised as fiction of Gessen. Reading this I said “Well..at least this is a short story.” I would agree that the Trump stuff is a bit awkward and perhaps we’re invited to be too gleeful at her revenge on the patriarchy, but the overall design and structure was strong and reminder me of, but not quite as good as, Alice Munro.

  10. Eric May 9, 2018 at 1:58 am

    Wasn’t planning to read this, but Ken liked it so I knew I would like it too. Having a doppelganger like this, where I can be at least 95% sure ahead of time that I’ll like it if he likes it, definitely makes reading more fun.

  11. Ken May 11, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Eric! I’m fascinated by our taste similarity. I will be very aware now when I see your name on this site.

  12. James June 9, 2018 at 10:46 pm

    I enjoyed reading her two collections of short fiction. This story had some great phrases as quoted above. But overall, there is a strain in the writing; it is not as convincing especially with the husband/children/politics sections of the story, which is the bulk of it. With the New Yorker, you always think they have the clout to obtain and publish the “best” fiction available so it is surprising and disappointing when they choose an okay story from an accomplished writer. It’s as if they lowered the bar a bit.

  13. Greg June 10, 2018 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks James, and many of us share your last sentiment!

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