Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Short-a-Day: Yiyun Li's "The Science of Flight"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 30, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 20.

Over the years she had become accustomed to who she was in other people's eyes: she knew she would be considered a loser by her Chinese acquaintances in  America, a divorced woman toiling her life away in an animal-care facility, someone who had failed to make it; in her landlord's and neighbors' eyes she was the quiet, good-mannered foreigner who paid her rent on time, who ever Halloween put out a couple of pumpkins, uncarved but with drawn-on eyes and mouths, and who had no visitors on weekends or holidays, so there was no conflict regarding the guest parking; for her grandmother and her aging customers, who spent their days in the shack for conversation and companionship more than for the care of their thinning hair or balding heads, she was--despite being a baby who should have remained unborn, a child with little merit and an unnerving manner, and a young woman who had no respect for marriage or her own future--a proof, in the end, of the ultimate mercy of life. 
To me, that's a great and almost complete story right there. Sadly, in context, this section comes across as repetitious, and the material that follows it does little to expand on this concept: a woman who happily resolves herself into what others see in her, mainly because she's happy just to be seen, and also because she's learned not to see anything in herself: "That Zichen's grandmother had kept her in order to spite her rebellious and humiliated daughter Zichen had always known; that her mother had given birth to her in order to spite her father had become evident when they met." From her Q&A, it doesn't really look as if Li knows where this story is going, or particularly cares if it is working or not: she seems a bit like Zichen herself.

It doesn't help that there's nothing for this story to lean back on stylistically--it's a very traditional story, right down to its drifting structure, which meanders from past to present to future without ever really settling on a pivotal moment or event that would make us care. That may resemble Zichen's life, but if so, why tell us about her life in the first place? Also, the lack of insights and emotions suffocate the story in history: "At that age, friendship had to offer drama or ease; she had been unable to provide either, and later, as a young woman, had been unable to provide either to attract a boy." In other words, she's boring--"too inconspicuous to be a subject of any confidences"--though oddly enough, somehow also "too strange and unpredictable to be a confidant." This is somewhat meaningless writing, no?

We don't really know much about Zichen's meaningless co-workers, Henry and Ted, either, and her flashbacks describe her first real friends, Margaret and her husband John, but very little about them or that relationship. Even the unusual microstory she tells, about a day trip she took with a lonely man whom she'd called her father (so the other kids would stop calling her a bastard), goes nowhere. Man, this is dry, dry stuff.

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