Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
 by Yiyun Li

Random House
Second Collection

Awards: Finalist, 2011 Story Prize

"My mother sometimes said my name in a soft voice when my father was not around, and I would know that she had some secrets to tell me. A man can have children until he is seventy, she would say; a woman’s youth ends the moment she marries."

Reviewed by Marko Fong

Yiyun Li is the product of three cultures. The first two are obvious: Yi came to the University of Iowa from China at age twenty-four to study immunology. The influence of the third is more profound. In interviews and at readings, Li frequently mentions her love of older British writers. Nowhere is this more evident than in her third book and second collection of short stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Shout outs to Dickens and Lawrence appear across the nine stories as characters surreptitiously read and treasure British writers in the way Li apparently once did. In her acknowledgments, Li mentions William Trevor, whom she has elsewhere cited as a favorite contemporary writer. Li even describes her title story Gold Boy, Emerald Girl as a "conversation" with Trevor's Three People.

Like Li, Trevor left his native country in his mid-twenties. He settled in England, yet primarily writes about his native country. Like Trevor, Li is a precise writer who builds her stories through "ordinary people" characters. Main characters are never famous, seldom heroic, and admire the talents of others but possess few of their own. As a group, both Trevor's and Li's characters are marked by an inability to articulate their deepest feelings to those closest to them.

Both writers also come from literary traditions noted for a polyphonic-lyric use of the native language and frequent references to either the Church or Chinese mythology. Compared to their compatriots, Trevor and Li are verbal scalpels. Their language is simple, efficient, yet cuts clean to the bone. They also both stay within the realm of what Trevor sometimes calls "conventional", though both are frequently inventive within traditional narrative. For instance in Kindness, Li indulges in meta-fiction as the main character is exposed to Dickens by the wonderfully Dickensian, Professor Shan. Despite setting almost all of her fiction in China, Li writes only in English. She's even admitted that she's reluctant to translate her fiction into Chinese. Both writers have acknowledged that emigration gave them space for a necessary objectivity.

In Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Li's Trevorian sense of restraint serves her subject matter well. While a number of reviewers have noted the persistent sense of loneliness in this collection, almost all of the stories touch on the state of the family in post-Mao China. Although Li insists that she did not set out to do so, the stories are more thematically tied than most "linked collections". In Kindness, the opening novella, a middle-aged school teacher who is the product of a family of convenience (she's rescued from a garbage heap by a father who does not share a bed with her mother) explains/defends her lifelong unwillingness to pursue deep connections. In The Proprietress, the three Chinas of Post-Mao capitalism, Communist Isolation, and the Confucian era come together. As the fifth wife of a generations-past landowner lives out her days in a general store in a prison town, the female owner builds a family with the women who wait there for their loved ones. In my favorite, Sweeping Past, a visiting Portugese-Chinese girl fixates on a picture of her grandmother and her friends as teenagers when their pledge of "sisterhood" was expected to be both passionate and lifelong. Instead, "hatred, as much as love, did not come out of reason but out of a mindless nudge of a force beyond one's awareness."

In several of the book's marriages, passion is readily traded away for stability. Li's stories often reveal emotional stalemate where the American notion of "having it all" is not only rare, it's literally impossible. Even when characters attempt connection, it's doomed. The elderly protagonist in A Man Like Him who seeks out a father targeted by his own daughter in her blog leaves "knowing nothing would be changed by their brief meeting." The young woman in Souvenir seeks one last connection with a comatose boyfriend as she dreams of showing a "pink pack (of condoms) to her children, a souvenir of hopeful youth."

Traditional Chinese culture is built on a foundation of family relations and right behavior. Li expertly reveals the cracks in that foundation wrought by the Cultural Revolution. Her characters recite rhetoric of family and connection, yet the destructive shadow that came after a generation of passionate belief and political zealotry intimidates them. Even in the collection's most humorous take on post-Mao China, a group of older women form a detective agency to preserve family by investigating broken marriages instead find themselves painfully reminded of the imperfections in their own families. As China rolls into greater material wealth, Li documents continuing emotional anorexia.

Before one thinks that Yiyun Li is just Chinese for William Trevor, there are some differences. One of Trevor's strengths has been his portrayal of the inner worlds of middle-aged female characters. I notice that Li's male characters, as a group, fare poorly. Capable males are notably absent from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. In Kindness, the male soldiers are sophomoric and the father seems unaware of how little regard the wife he rescued had for him. In House Fire, the husband disappears while his wife is left to deal with a mercurial surrogate mother. Li's most positive male character is the widower in Number Three Garden Road who mourns his wife then allows his next match to take the form of a real estate deal made possible by the privatization of homes. This is not to go all Frank Chin/Ishmael Reed on Li. In fact, one of Li's more remarkable creations was the surprisingly dimensional child molester, Bashi, in her novel The Vagrants. The father in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers was also highly sympathetic though unable to connect with his American daughter. Still, I'm not certain that Li, as yet, matches Trevor's capacity to grant characters of both genders their full humanity. Li is, however, half Trevor's age.

While both writers brilliantly use restrained precision to lay bare profound loneliness, Li's take on the world is consistently darker. Some minor players may find happiness, but her stories always mix pain with any satisfaction for the main characters. This is a Trevor trademark as well, but his stories sometimes cut across the sadness to more of an uptick. For example, there's the hopefulness at the end of The Children or both characters getting what they want in An Evening Out. This may simply be a function of the fact that China arguably has a sadder recent history than even Ireland.

It's bizarre to say this about a thirty-nine year old writer with a Macarthur Award, but I look forward to seeing Yiyun Li expand her repertoire from sadness and loneliness to occasional unthwarted intimacy and even joy with her characters. If that happens, my guess is that when Li reaches Trevor's current age, she could be his equal among writers extending the Chekhovian tradition. She is already the finest British writer who happens to be Chinese-American. Gold Boy Emerald Girl is just further evidence.

Read a story by this author in the New Yorker

Marko Fong lives in Northern California and published most recently in Memoir (and), Solstice Quarterly, Brilliant Corners, and Grey Sparrow Journal. His fiction has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and twice for a PEN/OHenry prize.

Marko's other Short Reviews: Jennifer Egan "A Visit From The Goon Squad"
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Within five years of coming to America as an immunology student, Yiyun Li won the Paris Review’s Plimpton prize, the first of many awards. Her first short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the inaugural Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.  She teaches in the University of California at Davis’s Creative Writing Program and lives with her family in Oakland, California.

Read an interview with Yiyun Li