Yiyun Li’s writing is oddly soothing. Her sentences convey a sense of relaxation, of slowly slipping into a place where living life matters more than simply letting everything slip by, where watching other people is more interesting than doing anything yourself. This is what keeps her new story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, from falling into a pit of predictability, but it also makes the book feel oddly somnambulant. Some of the stories vividly express what it’s like to live on the edges of society, always watching other people who seem to live in more interesting worlds. Some are inert and lifeless on the page, pinned down and dissected until they’re dead.
All of Li’s stories in this collection revolve around a variety of similar plot elements. Parents who go to desperate lengths to get children are frequently involved, as are older women who look back on their youth. Li builds many of these stories on a foundation of Chinese matriarchs and patriarchs shocked by the rush of modernism sweeping over their country. Most of the stories are set in out-of-the-way corners of Beijing or Shanghai, though Li also visits more remote areas in her native country and the United States a handful of times. Homosexuality and divorce both appear a number of times.
In some places, this recurrence of incident feels welcome, as if Li were telling a series of stories linked by theme and plot, instead of by character. The people in Gold Boy long for more than they’ve been given, but they lack whatever vital piece would allow them to reach up and grab what is within their reach. In the first story, the novella-length “Kindness,” Li’s narrator speaks of how she’s led a life of no consequence, remembering everyone she’s ever met (and thus being burdened in her mind by her own expectations, but also the expectations of all her casual acquaintances), though she knows they will not remember her. Recalling when she was a small girl and she failed to return the body of a dead pet chick to its egg, she muses, “I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the eggshell.”
These moments of emotional acuity pepper every story Li writes, but she varies the tone so little that readers will be forgiven for finding the stories monotonous. Li is a gorgeous writer, but her protagonists leave much to be desired. There’s a sense that nearly every story here is a still life, with Li spending dozens of pages on the lives of her trapped-in-amber protagonists, the ways their lives have let them down and the ways they face down death. All the stories are well-written, and they all offer trenchant insight, but there’s always a sense that there could be so much more to them.
The collection’s second story is also the best. In “A Man Like Him,” an old man whiling away his life on Internet chat rooms discovers a kinship with a divorcé he doesn’t know, via reading an article about him in a fashion magazine. Here, the protagonist has something like a quest, though it’s refreshingly small-scale, and the story tosses his regret at what has been lost in with his attempts to find the divorcé. It’s a beautiful tale, with a handsomely deployed twist that doesn’t call attention to itself. But it inspires wishes that more of the stories in the collection didn’t feel so airless.