Monday, June 27, 2011

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl makes the third book I've read by Yiyun Li and her second collection of short stores. I picked up The Vagrant after seeing a blog entry about it and then I read A Thousand Years of Good Prayers because several people mentioned that Yiyun Li's real talent was in short stories.

After reading Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I fully agree. The Vagrants was a powerful novel and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wanted to gain more insight into that particular aspect of China, but I had a hard time relating to most of the characters and I felt that the narrative tended to wander a bit. The story was still powerful in spite of that, but I think to truly appreciate Yiyun Li's genius (and genius isn't an exaggeration, given that she was named a 2010 MacArthur Fellow), one needs to read her short stories.

The stories in this collection are fairly diverse. Here's the description from Li's website:

In the title story “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” a professor introduces her middle-aged son to a favorite student, unaware of the student’s true affections. In “A Man Like Him,” a lifelong bachelor finds kinship with a man who is wrongly accused of an indiscretion. In “The Proprietress,” a reporter from Shanghai travels to a small town to write an article about the local prison, only to discover a far more intriguing story involving a shopkeeper who offers refuge to the wives and children of inmates. In “House Fire,” a young man who suspects his father of sleeping with the young man’s wife seeks the help of a detective agency run by a group of feisty old women.

Most, if not all, the stories deal with isolation and the human desire to make connections, especially since the desire for connection is frequently one-sided in her stories. For instance, in "Souvenir" (the shortest story at six pages), a widowed man tries to connect to a young woman who wants to be left alone for a personal errand. In "Kindness," several people try to make a connection to the main character who seems utterly oblivious to their attempts. These attempts aren't always unsuccessful, though even when a connection is successfully made, as in "A Man Like Him" or "Prison," it somehow seems unsatisfying.

There's also a sense of regression in several of the stories...or at least an inability to move forward. In "Kindness," at the age of 41, the main character still lives in the apartment in which she was raised. The main character in "Number Three, Garden Road, is in a similar situation. In "Prison," the main character returns to China from the U.S. in order to find a surrogate mother to carry a child following the tragic loss of her own daughter. In spite of this, there's also an awareness of the inability to go back. For example, when the main character of "Prison" suggests moving back to China, her husbands tells her "It's like a game of chess. You can't undo a move."

I also like (and recommend) Gold Boy, Emerald Girl for the same reason I liked The Vagrants. The majority of the work takes place in modern China, so the reader gains more insight into the life of a modern Chinese citizen, though the lives are much less brutal than The Vagrants.

I'm not a huge fan of short stories, mainly because I generally find myself wanting more. A couple of stories left me unsatisfied, or at least curious as to what happened after the story. However, most of the stories were like a perfect snapshot of someone's life. I'm absolutely looking forward to seeing more of Yiyun Li's stories (and I hope she chooses short stories over another novel) and I plan to give more short stories a chance after this.

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