“All Will Be Well”
by Yiyun Li
from the March 11, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

Yiyun Li is one of my favorites. It brightened my day when I saw that this week’s selection was another of her stories. As the story began, though not much is happening, I knew I was in good hands. Just look at how Li creates a physical space:

Once upon a time, I was addicted to a salon. I never called ahead, and rarely had to wait—not everyone went to Lily’s for a haircut. The old men Lily called uncles sat at a card table, reading newspapers and magazines in Chinese and Vietnamese. The television above the counter was tuned to a channel based in Riverside, and the aunties—related or not related to the uncles—watched cooking shows and teledramas in Mandarin.

Once this is establish, Li goes on to introduce us further to the narrator, a writer, and Lily, the woman who runs the salon, and what this space means for them.

I was the only customer under sixty, and the only one who spoke in English. With others Lily used Vietnamese, Cantonese, or Mandarin. The first time we met, I lied and said that I had been adopted by a couple from Holland when I was a year old and that we moved to America when I was in middle school. Lily forgave me then for not being able to speak one of the languages she preferred. Brought up by foreign devils, she told a nearby auntie in Cantonese. Half foreign, the auntie said; hair still Chinese. Half devil, Lily said; brain not Chinese. Both laughed. I smiled blankly at Lily in the mirror, and she smiled back. What do you do? she asked, and I lied again and said I was a student. She picked up a strand of hair and let it fall. My hair had just begun to show signs of gray. What subject? she asked, and I said I’d gone back to school because I wanted to become a writer. Will you make money being a writer? she asked, and I said not really.

Those are the first two paragraphs of the story, which plunges into the pasts of Lily and our narrator and how they come together in this space, seemingly set apart from the turmoil elsewhere: “Still, the world was full of perils. Some rather real, some rather close.”

I’m still processing what we have here, but I liked it very much. In her interview, Li brings up I.B. Singer’s “The Cafeteria,” saying she wanted to write a story that could “enter into a conversation with” Singer’s story. I don’t believe I’ve ever read “The Cafeteria,” so there’s a nice follow-up to this story.

I hope we can talk about Li’s story and Singer’s story below. Please feel free to leave your thoughts!

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By |2019-03-04T13:35:14-04:00March 4th, 2019|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Yiyun Li|Tags: |17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. David March 5, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    Trevor, I hope you find time and feel moved to write something more about this story. I have had mixed feelings about the previous Yiyun Li stories I have read and my main reaction to this one is indifference. I’m much more interested in thinking about the stories in Fen, which I am working through this month for the GoodReads discussion and I’m also getting back into Deborah Eisenberg’s collected stories. As a result, I don’t have more to say about this one, but would welcome someone giving me a reason why I should think more about it.

  2. Sean H March 5, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    Definitely flows and is pellucidly clear in the telling, almost too much so.

    When Li allows her style to be a bit more undulant and winding is when she’s at her best, be it in her fiction or her essays.

    The elder son’s death seemed an unnecessary addition, I must say.

    The literary allusions were a little lazy too. Another story about a contemporary writer who teaches (written by a writer who has taught)? ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

    I definitely would rather hang out with Lily than with the narrator, even though Lily probably watches absolutely horrible movies whereas the narrator has read “The Dead,” though maybe that’s part of what Li is getting at. Pragmatism > Semi-autobiographicalism.

    I dug a number of Lily’s lines. She’s a very well-drawn character. Some faves were: “We’ve waited for this for so many years. We can’t waste our time crying” and “We aren’t the kind of people who take time off from work, and he lives in Vietnam” and “His wife said, ‘You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.’ No one has ever said that to me.” Her insistence that her narrative should be a movie is also consistent with her character, as is her directness in asking if the narrator knows anyone who can make it into one.

    Tuan’s daughter and wife were an awesome invention, they saved the story when it was looking most like it was going to be a boring academic piece of crap.

    The real vs. unreal story stuff was too spelled out.

    The paragraph where Li attempts to describe the photograph of Lily and Tuan is pretty dreadful. Li has a lot of tremendous gifts as a writer but here she fails miserably. It’s just not in her skill set to rend a visual image in a trenchant way that abuts the earnest and evocative (Unless this is somehow intentionally bad, a way of incarnating the later lines by the narrator: “I could not make a romance out of Lily’s story. She was not the first person I had let down with my writing.” It doesn’t make it a genius move, but it would give it punk-rock points at least).

    The tragedy/comedy line was also a classic example of overwriting. Let the reader do some work.

    The section about the narrator’s inability to write the note is much better, consistent with the character’s personality.

    The self-recrimination seems like the wrong place to end. Should’ve ended with the narrator pissing Lily off and Lily locking her out of the salon.

    Still, there’s more to like in Li’s writing than to disdain, and the flaws didn’t ruin the story.

  3. Reader March 6, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    I’ve liked some of Li’s past work–including her previous story in the magazine–but his one didn’t live up to expectations. Indifference, as David mentions, seems an apt way to sum up my take. I agree with Sean that much of it is overly spelled out. Moreover, what is spelled out is a bit bland. In many regards, the various pieces of this puzzle didn’t end up fitting together in a compelling or coherent way. Felt like a lot of needless loose ends and tangents but no driving life-force. All the same, Li is generally a deft writer, and I’ll be happy to give her the benefit of the doubt whenever her next piece is published.

  4. Ken March 17, 2019 at 3:59 pm

    I had a much more positive reaction to this and, unlike with the Lethem story which seemed to lessen when I read the comments on this site, I will stand by my response. I thought of this as a story about a writer trying to learn how to write about profound, powerful subjects. While Lily sees these things as beyond her, something detached from reality–yet what makes life worth living, the narrator is a writer. I think her bringing up her son is completely relevant because this will be the moment when she has to deal with something much deeper. Perhaps the story is schematic–both Lily and the narrator live a fairly quotidian work/family-based life–yet the narrator can possibly use her art for therapeutic or enlightening purposes, while Lily can only hope for a film-adaptation. Yet…just as, and I know this is big compliment, Proust ends with his alter-ego character/the narrator being able to write the novel you’ve just read, here the narrator character is finally ready to start dealing with deeper issues, and, in fact, just has done so. I also found this very powerful and moving.

  5. mehbe March 18, 2019 at 5:26 pm

    I don’t know when this story was written in relation to the suicide of the author’s teen-aged son in 2017. It seems somehow present throughout this story.

    The narrator says “I did not know sorrow then, and later, when I did, after my elder son’s death, I thought that Lily’s young lover had been fortunate to have so many tears in him. Sorrow only desiccated me. Tears came to an end. Desiccation persisted.” That could be Li herself.

    The last words of the story are even more wrenching than they might otherwise seem, thinking about them as an expression of Li’s anguish over the suicide of her son.

  6. Trevor Berrett March 18, 2019 at 6:03 pm

    I haven’t gotten on here to explain my own positive reaction to this story, and I apologize! I will try to do so soon!

  7. David March 18, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    mehbe, I did not know her son committed suicide, but I suspected as much after reading this story because her previous story in The New Yorker, “When We Were Happy We Had Other Names” from September 2018, starts with a couple dealing with the suicide of their teenage son. Once is simply a plot idea she came up with. But twice? That suggests there is more to the story.
    .
    I understand, of course, that writers write about events from their own lives all the time and also, of course, there can be great therapeutic value to the writer to do it, but as a reader it makes me uncomfortable to know about it, especially when the events and writing are so recent and the events are so awful. It makes me feel like maybe I can’t criticize (or even read) the story just as a story anymore and pulls me out of being engaged with it. For example, with “When We Were Happy We Had Other Names” I commented this:
    .
    The one element of the story that did not work for me was the spreadsheet. It seemed to me like merely a writer’s device and entirely unrealistic. It is one thing for the death of her son to cause Jaiyu to want to reflect on all of the other deaths that have been a part of her life. But to want to write them down in a list cataloguing them, and not just as a list, but on a spreadsheet, suggesting many different sortable columns of information about each, strikes me as almost pathological behaviour (and no, not of the sort that can be excused by the irrationality of grief).
    .
    Now, on reflection, I wonder if making a spreadsheet really is something Li did after her son died. If so, my comment on her story is basically saying I think Li is pathological herself, not just the character. It goes without saying that this is not a comment I would have made had I thought it might be taken from her real life.
    .
    If anyone has not read the novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, I highly recommend it because it is excellent. But late in the novel there are some pretty serious and grim events described that became hard to read for me because I knew they were similar to real experiences the author herself had. I had to make an effort to read it just as story not to get lost in worrying about her or wanting to just stop reading. Like I said, writing their experiences might be importantly therapeutic for the writer, but it can (and for me, sometimes does) put a burden on the reader that goes beyond responding to a work of fiction.

  8. Reader March 19, 2019 at 11:58 am

    I agree with David in that, had I know the more harrowing details of the story were pulled so directly from Li’s personal tragedies, I would’ve been more sensitive with my previous comments. This gets me thinking, and I’d like to share my thoughts quickly.

    It’s a tricky thing, writing, reading. As we all understand, writers often use their work as an opportunity to grapple with their own inner complexities and struggles, laying bare what can be very intimate feelings, opinions, and personal histories. Most of the time, however–be it out of the author’s desire to protect their/their close relations’ privacy and vulnerability (note to Karl Ove Knausgård) or simply to allow a narrative to take on a life of its own–there’s a degree of distillation that takes place in fiction, which allows for the emotional undercurrents of a piece to ring true to an author’s experience while the particular circumstances are fictitious. As readers, I think the tendency for some of us is to assume that’s always the case, to take for granted the autobiographical distancing that many authors inject into their work. Consequently, it seems to me that we then come to feel entitled to critique the end products of the writing process with our own dry, analytical distance, presuming that such fiction is a strictly intellectual affair, designed with the intention that its prose and structural elements and thematic motifs be broken down and coldly scrutinized and for its own sake or our abstract pleasures. Of course, it’s a false assumption–one I’m too often guilty of–which this story and situation reminds me.

    Unlike genre or pop fiction, the beauty of literary work is that, when done in earnest, it’s intentionally and profoundly humanist at its core. It’s a process of personal reflection and self-discovery. The psychic energy underpinning every story is rooted, at least in theory, in the emotional sincerity that an author channels when crafting their piece. It’s art–fundamentally human and humane. Unfortunately, not everything published in the New Yorker and other lit fiction publications meets that high threshold; much of it is gimmicky or churned out or merely another brick in the citadel of one’s career. However, as this story underscores for me, we shouldn’t let ourselves fall prey to assuming such pieces are the norm. We as readers should approach each piece in good faith, assuming that it is a form of deeply personal expression and engaging it with the generosity and tact required whenever someone has the courage to open themselves up to other. That’s not to say every sincerely written story will speak to readers or that we can’t offer insight on why we failed to to connect with another’s work. It’s inevitable that a lot of stories won’t appeal to us. In the case of this piece, for example, knowing that it has a more autobiographic edge doesn’t change my reading outright; the particular articulation of its emotional energy and reflections still don’t totally resonate with me on a visceral level–this being less a critique and more a reflection of the fact that I simply haven’t shared similar experiences as intimately. But it make me want to apologize to Li for saying that I felt indifference, as if her process of coping with her son’s suicide isn’t worth my time or consideration. That just feels callus in retrospect, and I think it’s a result of my having gotten too comfortable with the assumptions outlined above.

    Okay, rant over. Sorry for the soap boxing.

    PS: Ken, your reading was very enlightening for me. It goes a long way in helping me appreciate some of the potency of the story. Thanks for that.

  9. Ken March 19, 2019 at 4:42 pm

    “Reader”: I’m glad my reading was helpful but I really wanted to write and thank YOU for that incredibly sensitive, well-articulated “rant” (which it is not) about increasing our readerly sensitivity. Interestingly, I did know about Li’s son’s suicide, but the story still resonated for me anyway and for the reasons I stated above.

  10. Reader March 20, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    I guess the appreciation is mutual, Ken. It’s nice to have a forum like this!

  11. William March 22, 2019 at 3:14 pm

    After seeing the reference to Singer, I linked up to David Margolies reading his story. Very arresting. Then I read Li’s story. How was this a “conversation” with Singer, I asked myself. Kind of like a conversation between my 8-year-old grandson and his father. Obviously Li was not paying attention during the putative “conversation”.

    BTW, it is irrelevant to our reading a story whether the author really experienced what she is writing about. Li’s son committing suicide should NOT be factored into how we evaluate this story.

  12. Trevor Berrett March 22, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    BTW, it is irrelevant to our reading a story whether the author really experienced what she is writing about. Li’s son committing suicide should NOT be factored into how we evaluate this story.

    I would normally agree with you, not caring a ton about authorial intent, but I’m not sure I do in this case. Why shouldn’t it be factored in? We often factor in external political/cultural/historical/etc. knowledge to understand what a story is doing, so I’m not on board that the author must be cut out. I know some people won’t know background facts, but I’m not so sure they should always be catered to. In this case, that knowledge deeply enriches the story, makes it take on tones and shades it doesn’t otherwise have. Should the author simply find ways to incorporate that explicitly? Sometimes, sure. All the time? I don’t think so. I’m in the same boat when it comes to Segal’s story from this week. The story would be different, and not as effective, if the author had to explain the background. I’m sure this diminishes the pool of readers who will respond, but, again, I’m not sure that should be avoided at all costs to make a story self-contained.

  13. David March 22, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Trevor, if I am interested in the life of an author and, say, reading a biography of that author, I can see how I will be quite interested in connections between the content of the author’s stories and life. Knowing about those connections can help better inform me about the author. But they don’t inform me about the story. Political, cultural, or historical facts can help when they fill in a broader context that the story takes place in or when comparing the world of the story with the real world can illuminate the story, but that is a different matter.
    .
    Little Steven has argued that actors should never give interviews because the more we know about actors as people the less able they are (or the harder they and we have to work) to get us to see them as just the character we see on the screen in a film. I would say the same about authors. The less I know about the person who wrote the book, the better it is for me as a reader when I read the book. It was only after I finished reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline that I first learned that Faye was strongly based on her own life. I was most of the way through Freshwater before I knew the character and author were closely related (and I wish I had not known in the latter case).
    .
    Since I mentioned films, let me also mention a pet peeve of mine about songs. If a song is written from the perspective of a woman who is in love with a man and a male singer sings it, I find it silly to change names or pronouns in the song. Not because it should be ok for a song to be about a man who loves another man, but because the singer is just telling a story and its silly to think of the singer as the subject of the story. Joni Mitchell has said that when she writes songs she feels free to write from the perspective of a character of any gender or age because it’s all storytelling. That’s the only perspective that makes sense to me.
    .
    In short, never confuse the storyteller with the story, no matter the medium of storytelling.

  14. William March 22, 2019 at 4:31 pm

    “We often factor in external political/cultural/historical/etc. knowledge to understand what a story is doing”

    Like “Cat Person”?

  15. William March 22, 2019 at 8:06 pm

    David —

    I liked your comment —

    “In short, never confuse the storyteller with the story, no matter the medium of storytelling.”

    I could write a tome about this, but I’ll just say: does the fact thAt Chekov never served on a Navy ship make “Gusek” less of a story?

  16. Trevor Berrett March 22, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    Like “Cat Person”?

    Yes. It doesn’t meant the result is always going to be great. But yes. And:

    I could write a tome about this, but I’ll just say: does the fact thAt Chekov never served on a Navy ship make “Gusek” less of a story?

    This seems to conflate a bunch of issues. No one above, that I can see, is arguing that an author has to have personal knowledge of something in order to write about it. I can see a vague relationship to what we are debating, but this is a different issue

    In short, never confuse the storyteller with the story, no matter the medium of storytelling.

    I have a similar response here. If a reader finds a story is enriched by knowing what the author has been through, it doesn’t follow that the reader is confusing the storyteller with the story.

    David and William, your responses feel rote and dogmatic. It could be I’m out on a ledge here or am not stating my ideas clearly, so do forgive me, but I’m trying to work through something different here.

    Is it irrelevant to our reading of the story that Li’s son committed suicide (and that she herself has attempted suicide more than once)? It can be irrelevant, if our goal is to isolate the piece from the author and seek some elusive objective hierarchy of writing. That is just one approach, though, and one I think works in general. It also can be relevant, and a piece can be enriched by that knowledge, perhaps to the point that the piece itself becomes meaningful to certain readers. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that. On the contrary, I know there is nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to find the piece better because of this knowledge; many of us did find it more interesting, better, meaningful, or something.

    We are not limited to any one school of literary criticism here. So I’ll end responding a bit to this:

    Trevor, if I am interested in the life of an author and, say, reading a biography of that author, I can see how I will be quite interested in connections between the content of the author’s stories and life. Knowing about those connections can help better inform me about the author. But they don’t inform me about the story.

    I don’t actually believe this. It seems aspirational, and above I’m trying to suggest that this aspiration is not shared by all. There are thousands of stories out there — told in prose, verse, song, film — that are not limited to their text. There are authors whose biography is central to the artistic qualities of their work. When I watch the films of Ingmar Bergman, I can appreciate them on my own, or I can see how the artist was working through dozens of his own issues on screen, his uncertainty on display. If I read Alice Munro, I can of course get a lot out of reading one story on its own or I can see her develop and explore themes she’s struggled with in the past. “The Peace of Utrecht” is a brilliant story all on its own, but it becomes even more complicated when we know what Munro went through with her own mother. I don’t believe I’m guilty of the fallacy of confusing the story with the storyteller when I, as a reader, explore how an author has dealt with his or her own life through art. For many of my favorite authors, their work was an essay about sometimes personal demons and never led to any solid conclusion or resolution.

    With the above, I run into the danger of over-defending Li’s story. “All Will Be Well” is not the key to unlocking Li’s life, nor is Li’s life the key to finding the story is a masterpiece. It is not. But it is good, and there are layers and complications that become visible when we know more about the story’s provenance, perhaps seeing how the story itself is more of an essay than a conclusion.

  17. Trevor Berrett March 22, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    By the way, thanks for the responses above — this has been fun and interesting. I’m sure I’m not adequately stating my case or responding to your assertions, but it has been nice!

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