Does this book belong in a blog for books ‘about China’? Yiyun Li was born in Beijing but has lived in the US since 1996, now teaching at Princeton. Unlike her earlier novels, China features only in the background of Must I Go: a handful of diary entries take place in Shanghai in 1931; a Chinese boy is glimpsed in a San Francisco crowd; a character is given a copy of The Art of War; a peripheral character is referred to as coming from Hong Kong. I’m sure many future undergraduate essays will discuss where Li sits between Chinese and American literature, but it’s no matter to me now – I was given the opportunity to read her latest and was in no mood to turn that down. Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for the ARC.
Roland Bouley, the character at the centre of Must I Go, is the sort of protagonist that Great Writers (ie, white and male) like to write about, and the sort of protagonist who usually instantly turns me off a book. Bouley is a twentieth century writer. He has lived a full, globe-trotting life. He is deeply selfish, and counts a loyal wife (Hetty) alongside a lifelong muse (Sidelle Ogden) and countless other lovers.
Must I Go is not, however, an ordinary narrative about an obnoxious writer who we are somehow expected to root for. The book may revolve around Bouley but our protagonist is 81 year old Californian Lilia Imbody (nee Liska), one of Bouley’s many fleeting love affairs: ‘Lilia Liska from Benicia, California, that’s who I am. Always’. Lilia had borne Bouley a daughter (Lucy) unbeknownst to him, raised by her husband (Gilbert, the first of three). Lucy, who reminded Lilia of Bouley in personality and temperament, committed suicide young (Lilia didn’t cry – ‘crying is not my way. Arguing is’). Lucy in turn left her own daughter Katherine, who also has a daughter (Iola), Lilia’s great-granddaughter. Lilia has a large family, with many siblings in each generation – it is a confident author that assembles such a large incidental cast for what is effectively a first-person epistolary novel.
The narrative conceit of Must I Go is that the bulk of the book consists of the annotations Lilia for Katherine and Iola in an edition of Roland Bouley’s diaries. Lilia features in Bouley’s diaries only in passing (as with other lovers, known only as an initial). On page 154 of Bouley’s diaries she is described as ‘the kind of girl my future wife would disapprove of’. We are being told two lives: Bouley’s by his own hand and with Lilia’s commentary; and Lilia’s own life. In the version I read there was no clear formatting distinction made between Bouley’s entries and Lilia’s annotations (I’m sure this will be made clearer in the physical editions), but such is the clarity of Li’s writing that the voices of Roland and Lilia are immediately distinguishable. Lilia is a fabulous creation – she is spiky, funny, reflective and rather morbid. She is deeply judgemental about the other residents of her home (particularly those engaged in memoir writing classes). There is just the touch of Baby Jane about her. Roland, through his diary entries, is less distinctive – but this is more a function of his selfish character being rather more familiar to us than the much more original, insightful and interesting Lilia.
Lilia is outwardly morbid but her writing about death is touching, thoughtful and original. Yiyun Li has a closer relationship with death than most would wish and has explored it in previous books, and has identified writing fiction as a necessity to engage with her own self (see this Guardian interview). I note that the acknowledgements to Must I Go mention soberly that ‘the writing of this novel was interrupted by life’ – death may well have been at the forefront of her mind, but if so then life and memory were too. I highlighted countless phrases in Must I Go, almost all about memory or death, and almost all uniquely beautiful and original.
Sidelle Ogden died in 1969. Hetty Bouley died in 1987. But as long as Roland had lived they must have retained some realness. That thing people say about memory keeping the deceased alive – there’s no harm in believing in that nonsense just as there’s no harm switching to another brand of toothpaste because you like its commercial. When Roland was alive Sidelle and Hetty must have been like flowers that still bloomed in the sunroom of his mind. But they had become dead specimens in his diaries when he died.
The conceit allows Li to play with structure and narrative. Not only do we know that the diaries are heavily edited, but we also know that whole sections were destroyed at Sidelle’s request, and we are only shown the entries Lilia chooses to annotate for Katherine and Iola – notably not including the passages about her. Everything we receive is filtered (or clouded) multiple times. Li even manages to have her cake and eat it – after a slightly meandering section of Bouley’s diaries, Lilia blames Roland for not being able to ‘tell what was important, and what was not’. Lilia is frequently exasperated with him (‘why was he so afraid of being forgotten, when he himself invested so little in remembering others?’) but her annotations are tinged with a romantic nostalgia of a life lived with great character, but also great heartache, and yet no regrets.
At times it feels like a great hall of mirrors filled with dry ice – beautiful but ambiguous and somewhat discombobulating. But, unexpectedly, the narrative punches come at the end of Bouley’s diaries with the deaths of his muse Sidelle and then his wife Hetty. We realise that we have never really known either woman, we have only read Roland’s selfish unthinking opinions, and Lilia’s ill-informed views. A similar effect happens when we learn that Lilia’s first husband Gilbert, who apparently unknowingly raised Roland’s daughter Lucy as his own, did in fact know of her parentage. We see suddenly that all these characters lived their own rich, full and complex lives – but our narrators are not able to do justice to them. Memory, we are reminded, is not just selective, fragmented and unreliable, but also profoundly subjective – and ultimately transient. We can leave behind a memoir; we can even leave behind annotations of someone else’s memoir; but we can’t leave behind truth. Must I Go is an immensely rewarding read.