Reading The Vagrants (2009) was one of those reading experiences that I couldn’t bring myself to write about. Which made me feel cowardly as I can only imagine how difficult it was to write that kind of story, to put that kind of pain into words and then rework the prose until it looked as effortless as Yiyun Li’s prose looks. But I could only read it and then marvel at it silently.
“A Flawless Silence” is quite another kind of story, not set in China but in the United States. Min lives there now, south of San Francisco, where she is married to Rich. The superficial conflict in the story revolves around the fact that Rich voted for Donald Trump in the last American election and he wants Min to lie to their children, either saying that she did as well or saying that she did not vote at all. Min’s truth doesn’t fit with Rich’s view of the world. The deep-seated conflict revolves around the fact that Min agreed to marry Rich when she was nineteen, but it hasn’t turned out the way she hoped.
“Min had grown up thinking she was born into a role as a flawless daughter, and someday she would become a flawless daughter-in-law, wife, and mother. It turned out that she was none of these, yet she couldn’t see where she had fallen short. No one was perfect, she knew, but women in books and films often seemed flawed in a meaningful or attractive way.”
“The New Yorker” reading, with snacks: always a treat
This suggests that she wonders if she is flawed in a meaningless and unattractive way, although the rest of the story and her interactions with a girlfriend, for instance, present her as well-adjusted, intelligent and reflective. And, indeed, the bulk of the concern seems to rest with Rich and their ideas about marriage. Although Min seems to think that their ideas about marriage are similar. Or, at least, they were in the beginning.
“Could love find a place in a marriage if it had not started with some degree of fantasy? They were realistic people, and marriage was weather. They lived in it without any desire to control it or change it. They knew each other well enough to know the forecast.”
Min didn’t have to marry Rich. Another man approached her mother in China before that, to present his eligible son as a candidate for marriage. The boy’s father had clear expectations of his daughter-in-law. And even now, years later, he regularly sends Min updates on his son’s and his daughter-in-law’s lives. Which is actually where the story begins, with Min receiving an email update from this man.
It’s strange, how these updates come through. Strange how emotional Min’s response to them is. Not to the details they contain, which seem distant and irrelevant. But to their mere existence. And it’s not even as though she seems envious of the real-daughter-in-law’s life. It’s not as though she seems to long for that other woman’s existence.
The emails don’t appear to represent a choice she wishes she made. They only seem to represent some other choice than the choice that she did make.
“You thought that a man without a crazed look in his eyes would be the right husband, but perhaps a marriage should be more like an illness that the couple agrees to submit to so that they can recover together. Some succeed, others fail, yet two people can’t remain in their separate afflictions and hope for the best.”
But the questions which circle in Min’s mind and her ultimate response to them are at the heart of this story. Readers must wait until the story ends to gain an understanding about her relationship to these emails and the resolution she makes in their presence. Hers is not “A Flawless Silence”. But if it was flawless, it wouldn’t be such a memorable story.