Lilia Imbody (née Liska), ‘from Benicia, California’, is the resident curmudgeon at Bayside Garden retirement community: ‘anyone sitting next to her fell into the category of the unwelcome.’ She’s also a specialist in mordant wisecracks:
Jane was complaining this morning that all she could remember were the things before she turned ten and after she turned eighty. Where did those seventy years go? she asked me.
Maybe those seventy years weren’t real, I said.
That’s not true, she said.
Maybe they didn’t matter.
Objecting to a new memoir-writing class, Lilia suggests flower arranging would be more practical; that way, ‘you can plan your own funeral display.’ Her bad temper doesn’t bother the other residents – it’s as if they’ve been gentled into submission while they await the inevitable transfer to the Memory Care Unit.
‘I’ve lived a long and good life among husbands and children and gardens,’ Lilia, who’s 81, reflects. ‘I’ve lived a self-contained life. I’m what you call a happy woman.’ Happy, except for the fact that she’s been ‘arguing’ for 37 years with the ghost of her daughter, Lucy, who committed suicide at 27 and left her child, Katherine, to be raised by Lilia. Lilia has always been resilient, a looker who outlived three happy husbands. Katherine, meanwhile, is flailing in her marriage and her own daughter, Iola, is the outcast in her playgroup. In her great-grandmother’s terms, the child was ‘born to lose’. ‘Poor Iola,’ Lilia reflects. ‘Chances are, she would turn out not to be enough of a ship to be wrecked by life.’ Where did the bloodline go wrong?
‘The writing of this novel was interrupted by life,’ Li states in the acknowledgments. She began Must I Go before suffering a mental health crisis, during which she attempted suicide and was hospitalised. The experience led her to write a memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, which was published in 2o17. That same year, her teenage son, Vincent, committed suicide. The writing of Must I Go was again put on hold, as Li embarked on Where Reasons End (2019), a novel that takes the form of an imagined dialogue between a mother and her dead child. As if such traumatic interruptions of fiction by life weren’t enough, her fiction now resembled a distorted mirror of those unforeseen events.
Despite this, nobody refers to Li’s work as autofiction. (This is proof enough that the term has something miasmic about it.) In her recent stories in the New Yorker, the protagonists resemble some version of Li herself: they are immigrants to the US, who live in suburbs, teach and raise kids, who go back to revisit their past. They are all obsessed with memory. ‘When We Were Happy We Had Other Names’ tells the story of a couple who lose their teenage son to suicide. The mother traces her memories step by step until she reaches her grandfather, who, she realises, lost a wife and infant before her mother was born. The story ends in a burst of poignancy: ‘It had taken her child’s death for Jiayu to mourn her grandfather again, this time as the young man who had buried his wife and child. She would not say it was late, though. True grief, beginning with disbelief and often ending elsewhere, was never too late.’
Li’s protagonists aren’t likeable. At the start of ‘A Small Flame’, the first of Li’s stories I encountered, Bella buys all the roses from a street urchin in Beijing and tosses them over a fence to get rid of the pestering child (who proceeds, money in hand, to lunge over the fence to retrieve them). In ‘A Flawless Silence’, Min, an immigrant in an arid marriage, tells an old man who fetishised her youthful beauty and wants to see her again to ‘go to hell.’ Li doesn’t flinch from viciousness, especially in the fiction set in her native China. In her first novel, The Vagrants (2009), a member of the Red Guard kicks a pregnant woman who then gives birth to a misshapen girl; the girl grows up abused; the guard (for different reasons) is denounced and executed – vocal cords cut and kidneys removed. In Kinder than Solitude (2014), a psychopathic girl poisons her friend, who doesn’t die but lives on for years in a vegetative state. But the brutal is always tempered by the poignant. In ‘On the Street Where You Live’, an unsentimental mother confronts the fact that her brilliant, autistic son will be condemned to his greatest fear – a life of loneliness.
This blend of prickliness and pathos distinguishes Li’s female characters. We’re never quite sure why they do the things they do. Her fiction pushes the limit of character analysis. This goes to the heart of Must I Go, Li’s fourth novel. Why was Lilia’s mother unhappy? Why did Lucy kill herself? Could the diary of Lucy’s biological father shed light on his progeny? Lilia’s bracing clarity is her source of strength, though it gets her nowhere in her quest to understand her daughter’s suicide. She is undeniably fiercer than those around her – her other daughter, Molly, calls her a ‘bully’ – but she is the descendant of pioneers (including a Lithuanian immigrant) who grew up on a ranch in California and embraced the ethos of the West: ‘She had been born to do things, like the horses were born to toil.’
Must I Go is a story within a story. The first hundred pages or so provide a third-person exposition of Lilia: her present life in the nursing home, her upbringing on the ranch, and her first love affair, a fling at the age of sixteen with the thirty-something Roland Bouley, which results in her pregnancy with Lucy. A lifetime later, Lilia has the chance to read Roland’s diaries, published after his death by a vanity press. The remaining two-thirds of the novel draw on entries in this diary from across sixty years. But even as Roland’s story takes centre stage, Lilia is always scribbling in the margins. She annotates the diary, correcting and sometimes rebuking Roland, while trying to make amends for withholding the truth about Lucy’s paternity. (It may be the only thing for which she has ever felt guilt.) She reads Roland’s diaries not to understand their fleeting romance, but for an insight into the man who imparted something of his character to the daughter she could not save.
Lilia’s mixture of boldness and pride is evident from the start: Roland is a handsome stranger who is visiting San Francisco for a UN conference. She immediately decides to supplant his lover – after all, she’s younger and more becoming – but is quickly disabused of the notion:
Roland explained that a man would fit women into different slots in his life. It’s like furnishing a house. Some women are good furniture you’ve inherited, he said, so you put them there for all to see. Others are perfectly nice, like wallpapers and curtains and umbrella stands, but easy to replace. Some are impulsive purchases, and you really want nothing to do with them afterward. Some are fine things you enjoy once in a while. And then there are necessities, like washbasins.
Clearly, despite his name, Roland will not be her knight. When she winds up pregnant, Lilia is too proud to tell him. She marries the staunch Gilbert Murray, who embraces the child as his own. By coincidence, he was an organiser at the same UN conference.
Roland, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, was an infant when his parents died in a train crash and spent his life in thrall to mother substitutes. His early diaries, floridly written, reveal his literary aspirations and a secret infatuation with his aunt. He becomes a companion to a much older poetess called Sidelle Ogden who can’t quite take him seriously. Eventually he marries a cold but devoted cousin, Hetty; along the way he sheds various professional ambitions – first to literary greatness, then to international diplomacy. He becomes an antiquarian book dealer with no offspring except the daughter Lilia hides from him.
Without Lilia’s lively interventions, Roland’s diaries would be rather dull. He goes to Hong Kong and Europe, criss-crosses the US, and spends the Second World War in London, where he works in ‘public relations’. The sole drama of his life involves his pining after Sidelle (who, having already lost a young husband and a baby, can only love pro tem). Hetty pines after Roland and hates the poetess: ‘Out to lunch with Sidelle and Hetty today. One cannot imagine a better-mannered girl than Hetty, or a smoother woman than Sidelle. Yet anyone watching from above would pity me, a poor man with two expensive dishes thrust upon him, neither of which he could quite afford.’
Instead of dramatic tension, we are treated to Roland’s sententious observations. On himself: ‘Reading Ovid last night, I wondered what plant or beast I deserved to be transformed into if I announced my passion.’ On women: ‘Any young woman looking hesitant in finding the right words has an air of coquetry, with just the perfect tinge of defencelessness.’ On cities: ‘New York City is like a prostitute past her prime. There is no way to peel off this ageing layer, greasy and grimy, to see the city in its original and pristine form. Can any metropolis ever have been virginal? Paris, which I have not yet visited, retains its allure for me, but it’s the allure of an ageless courtesan.’
Lilia, too, is obsessed with bad metaphors, but she enjoys dismantling them. Roland may say: ‘One must be careful not to place one’s heart in a cage that can be unlocked by only one key.’ But ‘every time Lilia heard the phrase “the key to my heart” she laughed. A lock only invites a burglar.’ This is a tic we might expect from Li, an anatomist of English, repeatedly struck by the strangeness of her second language: ‘memory lane’, ‘broken heart’, ‘family tree’ all get dissected. But it seems implausible that Lilia – prone to daffy conceits like ‘my heart is now stale bread’ – would spend her time scrutinising English clichés:
By the time you read this I’ll be as dead as a doornail. (By the way, why a doornail? Life is mostly made up of dead things. What’s so special about a doornail? I’m not the kind to be hammered. Maybe I can say, I’ll be as dead as a garden hose. Or a potholder, a clothespin. How about a shoe tree? I always love those dead things that go by the names of living things: a shoe tree, a drain snake, pigs in the blanket.)
Lilia and Roland’s shared appeals to platitude and dead metaphor come to seem tedious. So does the mawkish chauvinism that unites their sensibilities: a belief in women as the secret legislators of the world (hence, perhaps, Sidelle’s occupation). Roland may be condescending to women as an extension of his chivalry, but they dominate his emotional life. Lilia’s bigotry is more straightforward: the men in her life are footnotes (she is even condescending about her uxorious husbands – ‘Imagine going to dear old Gilbert for a dream. It would be like searching a cereal box for a diamond’). She is also prone to generalise about the sexes:
What was difficult for Roland was that what he read in the newspaper had nothing to do with him. That’s difficult for many men.
A woman’s value, in her opinion, was not measured by the qualities of the men in her life, but by the qualities of the women in the lives of those men.
Men don’t understand that all stories are, in the end, women’s stories. That’s why they start wars and make peace, so they can claim something for themselves.
Like sets of Russian dolls. Infinite possibilities. How to entertain yourself and others – this is how: always know that you have all those secret women inside you.
When Lilia remarks that ‘men are amazing. In the most predictable ways’, I wrote ‘Eek!’ in the margin. It reminded me of my grandmother’s folksy pronouncement on male appetite: ‘Men are dogs!’ (It was more resonant in Russian.)
This brings us to the question: what interest could a character like Roland offer to Li? And does the author of some of our most pitiless contemporary fiction really sanction Lilia’s sentimentality about womankind? My first assumption was that Li was trying her hand at pastiche. Sidelle Ogden’s bluestocking milieu – her ‘exquisite’ conversation which resembles ‘bone china of the finest quality’ – seems Whartonesque. Was there something of Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence lurking in Lilia Liska? Then I reread Li’s memoir and came across her description of Stefan Zweig’s novella Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922):
The recipient of the letter, a famous writer and womaniser, does not recognise the sender, a woman who claims to have loved him all her life. She was his neighbour as a young girl and watched him live a busy life among women. Later, he mistook her for a prostitute. She bears his child, who dies in the flu epidemic of 1918; she, about to die herself, writes the letter to narrate her lifelong love.
Zweig, whom Li read ‘tirelessly as a teenager’ provides the seed for Must I Go. His womaniser is transposed into Roland, his letter-writer into Lilia, the child who died into Lucy.
In her memoir, Li goes on to explain the interest Letter from an Unknown Woman held for her:
When I first read the novella at fourteen, I was enamoured of the woman’s valiant loyalty. I now see what I missed. Rather than a story of unrequited love, it is a story about melodrama’s transgression. What is truly inhuman is the woman’s refusal. She has the courage to keep her melodrama intact; the callousness to imprison another person in it. This is the cruelty of melodrama – like suicide, it neither doubts nor justifies its right to be.
We could think of Must I Go as an experiment in melodrama (‘like suicide’) by a writer who has always struggled with the question of self-exposure, who hates using the word ‘I’ and expunges it from her work – resulting, ironically, in further self-exposure. ‘A writer can deny she is autobiographical. But what is revealed and what is concealed expose equally.’ This double-bind is lost on confessional kitschmeisters, which is the reason Li’s memoir is so valuable. As a bulwark against bad writing, you can’t do better than to read Dear Friend, a book about the way Li renounced her home country, abandoned her first career (in immunology) and repudiated her native tongue. Each of those moves, which felt like self-murder on the inside, looked like perversity from the outside. Or like melodrama.
For a melodramatic story, Must I Go offers zero uplift. As a twisted experiment, Lilia once brought the child Lucy to meet the oblivious Roland and marvelled at the fact that neither recognised the other in the slightest. There is no mystical pull or bond. Roland doesn’t become a great writer; Sidelle is an obscure poetess. Lilia is headed for the grave, or the Memory Care Unit, whichever comes first. The novel ends with hardbitten Lilia longing for Lucy – and with her regret at not sharing her daughter with Roland. Lilia, like Zweig’s letter-writer, kept her melodrama to herself – an act which she comes to recognise as a particular kind of cruelty.