Into the Woods with Yiyun Li

Fairy tales—like Li’s Book of Goose—are so scary because there is no cushion between you and the will of the world, no room for mistakes.

Nietszche said that the world would be returned to fairy tales. He meant that the history of the world is a history of increasing incomprehension and obscurification, which will ultimately end in the total dark. We will, once again, become the subjects that live inside fairy tales. This frightful premonition lurks within Yiyun Li’s latest fiction, The Book of Goose. It is a strange novel, one that pairs an advanced realism with older story forms. It’s chilly here; things get very real.

Fables and fairy tales tell you how things tend to happen when it’s strong against weak, clever against stupid. Angela Carter called fairy tales “little parables of experience from which children can learn, without half the pain that Cinderella or Red Riding Hood endured, the way of the world and how to come to no harm in it.” The literary scholar Jack Zipes added that, in fairy tales, “a girl brings about her own rape and violent death because she does not know how to behave with dangerous seducers … the girl is punished because she is gullible, if not stupid, and doesn’t behave according to code.” Things are so much scarier inside fairy tales because there is no cushion between you and another person’s will, you and the will of the world. There is no room for mistakes.

Consider one such tale. Two girls of little means grow up in post–World War II Europe. They become bosom friends. Life is hard for them in shareable and unshareable ways, inspiring skullduggery and genuine heroism. They are comrades in the early days of comradeship: what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine; together we’ll make the world more livable for at least the two of us, more if we can manage it.

One friend is far more intense than the other, more clearly the proletariat of our highest ideals. Both know how to make things happen for real, but only one knows how to make things happen for real for real. Together, though not quite equally, they write stories about children that are engineered like true modern fairy tales, with death, killing, and entrapment, and underneath that, the pure pleasure of dream tasting.

At some point the more brilliant friend wills something big to happen. She decides to pull an ancient lever in meritocratic systems: publish a book, loosely based on their experiences, that will make their name in the world. In a remarkable act of magnanimity (or self-interestedness), she allows the other girl to take credit for the book and enjoy the recognition and opportunities that come with publication. Her friend can’t believe this is happening but goes ahead with the plan. She is subsequently treated to a lesson in the ugliness of contemporary publishing: agents, publishers, photo ops, and the whole culture industry media spectacle that packages authors, objectifies them, and enables them to objectify others. She learns through the world of publishing what it means when vacuous and silly people come to hold the whip hand.

The Book of Goose is unabashedly similar to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It’s as if Li wished to run a slightly different, more controlled experiment. We have rivalrous female friendship and authorship, exercises in trust and undermining. In North America this story line hit its moral and aesthetic nadir with “I Was Caroline Calloway.” “Who Is the Bad Art Friend” then tunneled 20 miles beneath it.

Li is going over this ground again. Indeed, anyone who wants to know what modern fiction is capable of will eventually find this plot. A biting critique of the world of publishing can be smuggled into an ideal bildungsroman: a story in which a young person becomes upwardly mobile through something like a literary meritocracy. In such epic modern novels, the young artist’s journey takes them from country to city, from the folk to the cosmopolitan, and from stories to novels, thus conveniently revealing the essence of these dichotomies.

Even more importantly for the evolution of the novel, this plot tests an author’s ability to depict thinking at close range: as consciousness, empathy, self-differentiation, sabotage, and so forth. In this advanced realism, consciousness becomes the battleground of human will, and the novel catalogues that will’s realistic interior movements and maneuvers. In other words, The Book of Goose revisits an existential competition between desperate, intelligent girl writers because it represents an ultimate representational challenge.

Yiyun Li is a writer who can combine tight moral economies, such as those of fairy tales and fables, with high-modernist technologies for representing human thinking. This ability owes as much to her well-readness and interpretive talents as to her intense personal tragedies and firsthand experiences of mass cruelty. Li was born in China in 1972, five years before the end of Maoism. She emigrated to the US in 1996 and shortly after that published her first short story, “Extra,” in The New Yorker. “Extra” sets in motion all of Li’s subsequent themes: the relationship between love and forsaking, the ugliness of revealed motivations, the intimacy of tyranny, and the prospect of true redundancy.

Li has the political exile’s curiosity about the instruments of individualization and self-liberation on offer in the West, an outsider’s wish to see them in their limit case. Her ground-shifting memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, so compelled readers because it spoke candidly about unappealing aspects of consciousness in this political order. To be shown someone’s thinking—their running mental account of the events as they occurred—is to be shown undermining and overpowering in real time. Only techniques of realism can reveal competitive thinking as a psychologically bottomless act.

Li has depicted Maoist and post-Maoist environments where thinking both vicious and salvific seems to evade all thought policing. She has also used these techniques to capture subtle movements in the Chinese diasporic heart, when the exiles realize that they have been scripted into culturally hybrid moral tragedies.

In The Book of Goose and Li’s previous novel, Must I Go, this realism with Chinese literary and cultural characteristics has been reapplied to people who are not Chinese. These characters exhibit a stronger drive to draw aphoristic conclusions, to disambiguate moral ambiguities, and to pinpoint weaknesses in someone else than do other non-Chinese characters. They are hyperaware of love’s criminality—what it is willing to do—and love’s precocity—what it can think to do. Gripped by real moral panic, they worry constantly that the wretchedness of what’s around them is being shouldered disproportionately by a few meek of the earth, and then worry that the meek are not so meek after all.

Yiyun Li is a writer who can combine tight moral economies, such as those of fairy tales and fables, with high-modernist technologies for representing human thinking.

I would venture that Li takes the risk of looking like a Johnny-come-lately to Ferrante’s scene because she is, along with Rachel Cusk, one of the only contemporary moralists writing narrative fiction and nonfiction (in English). Flouting the rule of show, don’t tell, the moralist makes adult proclamations about the ways of the world, tailoring interpretive candor into page-turners. The moralist is afraid of sounding repetitious and even more afraid of not going over things again. Who is the real artist? Tell me the truth about love. For these writers, such interlinked inquiries have never been far from Solomon’s judgments, predicaments of near identicality.

The Book of Goose practices comparative extremism: between kindred people there is only the difference between real and false, between winner and loser. This is caused by scarcity, but it’s also caused by the girls themselves. “You’re beginning to sound like me,” the girl named Fabienne says to the girl named Agnes. “Except when I say I’ll sort something out, I have a plan. You’ve only learned to use my words, but you don’t really know how to make things happen for real.” Fabienne is negging Agnes by telling her that emulation can only ever be second best.

In the rivalry between female authors and girlhood friends, only one survives. Their evolutionary outcome becomes a carrier for all dualisms: communism and capitalism; the country and the city; homosexuality and heterosexuality; straight and queer love; storytelling and authorship. The book’s opening pages orient us toward this desire to find concrete differences between doppelgängers. Why shouldn’t Western philosophical tradition’s preoccupation with is-ness—what is the orangeness of an orange, the appleness of an apple?—automatically consider the most extreme implications of human comparison (redundancy that leads to elimination)? For this kind of inquiry, proceeding half like science, half like some horrible childish mistake, Li dials up to the uncomfortable moral temperature of her earlier fictions.

Set a decade earlier than My Brilliant Friend, The Book of Goose represents world-historical conditions that are a little more drastic, a little more Old World. Agnes and Fabienne live in the commune of Saint Rémy in the years immediately after World War II. Young men come home barely alive from the war and die shortly after. Young women die in childbirth. Children are abused physically, and for their labor.

It is not easy to escape this world, or do so without once again succumbing to it. After all, that is the lesson of the German fairy tale “The Goose Girl,” in which the girl most poised to speak truth to abusive male power succumbs to it most completely. It’s hard to avoid this fate because the world is aching to put a certain kind of girl back in her place.

Agnes becomes the beneficiary of dubious charities, including, the most dubious, a free boarding school in London. Fabienne will never leave her hometown and will eventually die in childbirth (as you’re told in the first few pages of the book). Women’s liberation is not too far away in world-historical time, but ironically, the meritocracy that Fabienne and Agnes only so recently grasped, the one just emerging, is already corrupt to its core. Opportunities are dwindling for a certain kind of storyteller, and her world assumes the painful physics of regression.

There is a lot of wronging in The Book of Goose. One must forsake a beloved, implicate someone else. There’s a murky and potentially wrongful accusation of sexual assault, only one example of the experiments in human disposability that the two girls know real authors must know about, and they must learn directly. They lie and lie well, feats that leave the door open for misogyny even as the book depicts its tragic outcomes. Angela Carter wrote that “children’s fibs, like old wives’ tales, tend to be over-generous with the truth rather than economical with it.” Inventiveness is already a confession about scarcity and endangerment.

Things are about to get bad for children like us, Fabienne tells Agnes. Both know intimately the reversion to “the stench and the filth, the animals running amok, and the people crazier than animals.” There will be more and more misrepresentation of intentions, more and more deliberate misreadings of personhood.

People accuse storytellers of fabrication and therefore being fundamentally untrustworthy, when in fact it is the rest of the world that unjustly represents things that happened long ago, just happened, or are happening in front of your eyes—casually and without pause. Fabienne knows what’s coming for those like her, no matter how much lip service has been paid to women and children’s liberation: “It’s going to be pain and pain and pain and pain from now on.”

You need fairy tales—stories that do not tolerate subjectivity—to see without qualification how some things come to harm. With fairy tales, you don’t ask what the girl believes about herself, or what she thinks. You ask only if she is forced to stay at home where things are becoming increasingly dangerous, what she has to do if she wishes to improve her station.

You would never ask the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” to say why he does what he does, because to do so is always to distract from the fact that predation happens. Representing his interiority would only reduce his culpability. This was always the moral downside of representing subjectivity: once you let it expand in literature, you lose sight of significant causes and their effects, actual terrible things that happen.

At the same time, you need total subjectivity—innermost thoughts and emotional micromovements—to make the figures in fairy tales seem like second selves. You have to violate another person’s privacy, publish their thoughts for collective viewing to establish a common humanity in the most honest way, creating a literary doppelgänger, someone who could pass for you.

The Book of Goose represents one attempt to address this literary incompatibility, if not disprove it. It picks up the knapsack left by the woods of Li’s earliest works, enters the race last won by Ferrante, and reinvents the modern fairy tale.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

Featured Image: Photograph of dead forest after fire. Jasper National Park, Canada. / Sergey Pesterev (Unsplash)