>The New Yorker: "Alone" by Yiyun Li

>I’m not sure what to make of this story. It’s skillfully written, but it seems to lack emotion. Or perhaps that’s the point? (But then, of course, we’d have an imitative fallacy problem!) Suchen is a U.S. resident, originally from China, but she has put China in her past because of an incident that occurred when she was a girl. She and five other girls had entered into a suicide pact—the reasons aren’t clear to Suchen and if she doesn’t know, the readers certainly don’t know—and carried their plan out. Except that Suchen survived. Since then, an outcast, she’s been haunted by what happened, but not, it seems, with sadness. She doesn’t understand, but neither does she really seem to grieve.

At the time of the story, though, she is on her way to join her classmates. She has abandoned her possessions, granted her husband a divorce, and intends to sink beneath the surface of the ocean, never to be seen again.

Except . . . she meets Walt, an older gentleman who latches onto her. He is still hurting from the death of his wife from leukemia, and his wife had asked for a divorce when her prognosis became clear. The end of their marriage parallels the end of Suchen’s, and Walt understands no more than Suchen’s ex-husband why such a split was desired. Suchen claims not to understand, too, but surely she does. In the end, it isn’t clear that Suchen will carry out her plan, although the last line, I think, suggests that she will—despite a series of delays.

And what do we make of the beginning. There is a fire in the hills, the smoke from which threatens the visitors to the ski resort where Suchen meets Walt. Suchen, however, can’t smell it or see it. Is the smoke meant to represent something? A “smoke screen” perhaps? One that Suchen can’t herself recognize? She seems to feel at the end that she has let her husband go for his own good. But is that true? Or is she kidding herself?

This isn’t, in my opinion one of the year’s best New Yorker stories, but it’s far from the worst.

November 16, 2009: “Alone” by Yiyun Li

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  1. >I just finished (like two days ago) Yiyun Li's book, The Vagrants, which I thought was simply stunning (and horrifying in its way), so I was thrilled to see her story in the NY'er. Perhaps that sense of emotional distance in the story felt familiar to me after the novel, although there, emotional distance is about what keeps the characters (and reader) sane.

    I'm going to consider the story longer. I know what you mean about the smoke and fire in the opening 'graph: there but not felt. But Suchen isn't feeling anything anymore, can't feel anything. I felt a bit more optimistic than you at the end of the story; after all, she can't seem to find any bodies of water on the map as she turns east away from the ocean. But of course, there will be plenty of water in front of her.

    Anyway, back to the story…

  2. Hello,

    I greatly enjoyed and admired your insights in To Speak is to Blunder and One the Street Where You Live. Deep truths are rare these days – and always I think. Your thoughts on the limits of language brought mind the work the neurologist Paul MacLean whose theory of the triune brain focused on our inability to communicate with ourselves.

    The last sentence of his obituary (attached) captures the dilemma of the human condition as well anything I know of:


    Thank you and Very Best wishes,
    Steve Taylor

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