February 2015

Lori Feathers

fiction

Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

In the 1950s, experiments by the psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated that when infant monkeys were deprived of maternal affection during critical periods of development they were unable to compensate later in life for this deprivation. Harlow's finding found a receptive audience with psychologists and sociologists working with orphaned children who, in extending Harlow's theory to humans, concluded that without early nurturing children have no capacity to form emotional bonds or normal, healthy relationships later in life. Yiyun Li's novel Kinder Than Solitude is an artistic rendering of that theory.

Li's protagonist, Ruyu, is an orphan who is incapable of empathy toward others and devoid of any interests or ambitions for herself. She is not a stereotype (I know of no other character in life or fiction that she resembles) but an archetype -- more automaton than human. Her detachment is deliberate and coolly calculated:  

If she had ever felt anything close to passion, it was a passion of the obliterating kind: any connection made by another human being, by accident or by intention, had to be erased; the void she maintained around herself was her only meaningful possession.

Not long after Ruyu moves to Beijing for school, a sudden and mysterious illness leaves her housemate, Shaoai, brain dead. The cause of Shaoai's sickness and its consequences remain with Ruyu and her classmates, Moran and Boyang, into their adulthood. Throughout the novel Li masterfully excavates the interior lives of each to reveal the shards left by this experience.

Of the three, the most altered is Moran and her emotional devolution brings considerable complexity to the novel. Prior to Shaoai's illness, Moran was a carefree and happy teen who wished to see only good in people. She was generous and sincerely cared about others. Ruyu's consistent indifference was confusing and hurtful to her. The tragedy that befalls Shaoai and its aftermath leave Moran a different person. She unconsciously regresses to become like Ruyu -- her sole objective is to be left alone, to be exempt from participating in life. This degradation in Moran's emotional wellbeing juxtaposes with Ruyu's stasis -- Ruyu has not changed; she continues to live a sterile, unfeeling life without passion or purpose both before and after Shaoai's illness.

Although the novel's central action takes place in the weeks following the Tiananmen Square massacre that tragedy, oddly, has little significance in the course of the novel other than to frame Shaoai's rebellious nature. And, there were times when Ruyu's unwavering, pathological detachment seemed too exaggerated to be credible even for someone with her background and experiences.

Reading Kinder Than Solitude, I felt a persistent sense of unease, largely because each of the three lives examined is so dispiriting. But Li's skill in conveying the mental state of her characters makes the novel a compelling and even enjoyable read, one that is less about plot resolution and more about the reader's participation in a search to find emotional growth for Ruyu, Moran, and Boyang.

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li
Random House
ISBN: 978-0812980165
352 pages