Christopher Hitchens once said that there are certain books which appear not to have been written by human beings. For Hitchens, these books included Middlemarch, Ulysses, Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh; for me, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li falls firmly within this category.
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is a collection of short stories, loosely connected by the themes of kindness, isolation, and the ties which bind the individual to society. The stories are concerned with the impact other people have in shaping both the courses of our lives and in defining our own selves. In the opening story, Kindness, the narrator suggests that her life has been shaped by the people she has encountered:
I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself. The people I carry with me have lived out not only their own rations but mine too, though they are innocent usurpers of my life, and I have only myself to blame.
Curiously, the effect of these connections is not represented as an entirely positive one. The nameless narrator feels that her life has been diminished by the interference of outsiders; although their intrusions may be innocent, her life has been usurped nonetheless. Other people become burdens, twisting the courses of our lives. Kindness itself is a tie, a debt that must be carried with us (‘Kindness binds one to the past as obstinately as love does’).
Throughout the stories, characters are haunted by past cruelties, whether the harm inflicted upon others was intentional or otherwise. Mrs Lu, for example, is followed by the ghost of the girl she once inadvertently pushed to suicide:
The girl sneaked into the dorm building a month later, when Mrs Lu was busy with the mail, and jumped from the top floor. The thud, ten years later, still made Mrs Lu shiver at night.
Connections can spring even from seemingly distant sources: literature, both Chinese and Western, features within several of the stories. A line of ancient poetry is discovered by a daughter scribbled inside one of her mother’s novels, and she initially believes it to have been written for her father, but a later discovery prompts her to rethink this assumption. Dickens, meanwhile, is transported from Victorian London to 20th-century Shanghai, which leads, in turn, to the suicide of Siyu’s mother in the final tale of the collection.
While these ties, of literature, kindness and cruelty, may appear to be a burden, a debt which keeps the bearer beholden to others, the stories ultimately suggest that isolation is not a useful response to this problem. The roles played by others, whether positive or debilitating, cannot be escaped, and so can only be embraced.
Still, seeing her through other people’s eyes, Hanfeng realized that all that made her who she was – the decades of solitude in her widowhood, her coldness to the prying eyes of people who tried to mask their nosiness with friendliness, and her faith in the notion of living one’s own life without having to go out of one’s way for other people – could be deemed pointless and laughable.