Yiyun Li's first novel, Kinder than Solitude, is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Photo: Getty
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China’s Chekhov: Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

The sophomore novel from the author of story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Kinder than Solitude
Yiyun Li
Fourth Estate, 312pp, £16.99

In her award-winning story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and her superb first novel The Vagrants, Yiyun Li writes about how human relationships have endured or been crushed by China’s chaotic reality.

However, it is in America that Li’s importance as a writer is established. She is a MacArthur fellow and one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to watch. None of her works has been published in Chinese. And even though she didn’t move from Beijing to San Francisco until she was 24, she writes solely in English. “Chinese is rather an inhibitory language for me,” she has said. “I don’t have a Chinese vocabulary for most emotions because I grew up in this environment where emotions were not encouraged.”

Kinder than Solitude, like Li’s first novel, is about the unspoken emotional fallout of a young woman’s death in a small community. While The Vagrants revolved around the execution of a dissident during the Cultural Revolution, Kinder than Solitude is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Shaoai, a belligerent student awaiting punishment for her part in the protests, is mysteriously poisoned.

The story begins with the arrival of Ruyu, an unloved orphan who moves in with Shaoai’s family in a close-knit quadrangle in Beijing. Shaoai spares no effort in making her feel unwelcome, but her young friends Moran and Boyang (the only boy) happily take her under their wing. The three friends are the prime suspects in Shaoai’s poisoning although no one is charged with the crime. The novel evolves like a thriller that depends less on whodunnit than on differing emotional consequences for the three suspects: “A secret that never heals makes a person, however close, a stranger,” says Ruyu, “or worse, an intimate, an enemy.” Ruyu’s calm, inscrutable voice dominates the novel, and those around her. Her aggressive stoicism unsettles the community much more than the protests. “Intimacy and alienation,” writes Li, “both required effort beyond Ruyu’s willingness.”

In the two decades it takes for the poison to disfigure and finally kill Shaoai, the three friends enter their own quiet and insistent versions of solitude. Twenty years on, Ruyu dispassionately studies “her bruised body in a mirror so that she could have a better sense of the pain she should feel”. Moran becomes “a weary impersonator of all that one was not”. Boyang, the only one to stay in Beijing, cruises the streets as a cynical womaniser. As Li reveals the ways in which the emotionally destitute see themselves, judgements become harder to pass, conclusions murky and elusive.

Distance provides some perspective. Both Ruyu and Moran move to the US, making Kinder than Solitude one of the few times that Li’s fiction has left Chinese soil. Though America doesn’t generate the vivid descriptions that light up Beijing, this cultural shift provides a platform for Li to examine afresh the notions of fate and culpability.

As a child, Moran was once reminded of an old Chinese saying: “An egg never wins when it hurls itself against a rock.” It helps explain why she and Boyang find Ruyu’s fatalism so beguiling and, ultimately, contagious. In America, however, it is utterly baffling. To her waspish San Francisco employer, Ruyu is a curio rather than a threat, her chronic stoicism almost comical: “Disappointment is for those who begin with a plan, those who sow seeds and refuse to accept the barrenness of life.”

Although the lives and landscapes of this book become bleak indeed (marriages fall apart, no children are born, disconnection is the default), Li’s insight and humanity breathe beauty into the barrenness. And, despite the aimlessness of the characters, the plot is powered by the underlying mystery of Shaoai’s poisoning that, when resolved, poses forceful questions about agency and blame.

If it seems like Li is sidestepping politics, she isn’t. Her novel is published during the 25th-anniversary year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and its smaller tragedy seems interchangeable with the one that overshadows it: “One day neighbours in the quadrangle would refer to this time as the days when Shaoai had been mysteriously sick, as they would speak of the May afternoon when an army tank was overthrown and burned down at a nearby crossroads, or the day in June when Teacher Pang’s cousin pedalled three bodies on his flatbed tricycle from the Square to the hospital.”

Kinder than Solitude lacks the colourful personalities of The Vagrants, and at times the characters’ isolation can be a little overbearing. Yet this is also where Li’s writing is most powerful: her penetrating, understated sentences perfectly capture the muted feelings of her characters. No wonder she has been called China’s Chekhov.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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