Loss, Adjectives, Aftertime in Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End
In Yiyun Li’s autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End (Penguin Random House, 2019), a mother has conversations with her recently deceased son—a sixteen-year-old who has committed suicide. In many of their conversations, they debate the virtues and value of nouns versus adjectives, in which the boy always argues in favour of the latter (his “guilty pleasure” as he says). He lives in that space between somewhere and nowhere, and in that time that he refers to as aftertime.
Since, in my recently published essay on the film Moonlight (“Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight,” CR: New Centennial Review, volume 2, number 2, 2019), I too have argued in favour of the adjective when it comes to the language of affective relations to loss and death, I was struck by the presence of these very same questions in Li’s novel, and its own meditation on an adjectival sense of things, including the time of those affective relations, keyed to the temporality of the moment.
Like afternoon, afterword, aftermath, and afterlife, in which the prefix “after” does not negate the continuance of what it precedes and modifies (noon, word, mowing [etymologically], life), aftertime at once marks the finitude of time, and an a-temporal zone that follows time.
It is in the chapter of Where Reasons End, titled, “Inertia,” where Yiyun Li creates an opening in the story in which her son can make clear that in his suicide, that is, in his decision to unfollow, he has neither unfollowed life nor death, but instead has unfollowed time. It is in this way that he exists aftertime, as that zone in which he is no longer behind time, following it (but he also cannot be said to be ahead of time either), but instead exists after the temporality of corporeal existence in his unfollowing of time.
It is life and death that can only be followed, but never unfollowed. As the son suggests, aftertime is the only time that can be unfollowed, as it slips away, in time, from life and from death. The temporality of the moment, in its temporal passing—in its slipping away—is intimately related to the temporal unfollowing that is aftertime. It is the time and place where reasons end. This time and place of aftertime and after life and death, cannot be cohabited by mother and son: he in his death, and she is in her life and her mourning, writing, and sadness.
She tells us that hers is not the “sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano” but the kind of “sadness that stays inside one, still as a stillborn baby.” Here we note that the stillborn birth is not not a birth—but is still (a) birth. It is a birth into death; that moment when birth and death coincide. Such that birth is not the burst into existence but rather a loss that is still affectively borne (carried) in its very momentariness by the mother. Here in the novel, for the mother, it is a sadness that cannot be brought to term (in the sense both of born or ended), yet is not interminable either (as in melancholia) since it has been born (as still). It is in this way that one might argue that the moment is the birth of stillborn temporality.
Stillborn is an adjective of time and specifically of momentary temporality: the aftertime of afterbirth that is afterlife. Such an adjectival existence might be what the son has in mind when he says, “There are ways to live not as a noun, or inside a noun, or among other nouns” (67). That is: ways of living separate and apart from identity, interiority, or community, but instead as exposed to the intimacy of the Outside, not beyond. At one point the mother asks: “How long does it take for the frozen [adjective] to become fossil [noun]?” (83).
There is here an ethical rapport to loss that pertains neither to mourning nor melancholia, in that it allows the fadable to fade and the erasable to be erased (74). It is about allowing things in their singular passage to pass, rather than to try to contain or enclose these inevitable passages (these fade outs and die-offs). As the son points out to his mother: “A noun is a wall, an adjective is a window” (66).
Could it be that nouns are the ways in language in which we try to hold on to things, whereas adjectives allow us to let those same things go?
And does this amount to some sort of proof of what the son realizes and comes to argue: that it is adjectives that are indispensable, and not nouns? Such that qualities might be the things-themselves (the unspeakable), and not merely the modifier of things? And that the adjectival can be a source and sense of freedom—including the ability to live free of things (of nouns). “The world would be a wilder place for imagination if you let adjectives go free without having to modify something, he said” (84)—something such as a life.
Later in the novel, we encounter the question of naming those someones who have lost someone, and the absence of any such names. “What do you call a parent who’s lost a child, a sibling who’s lost a sibling, a friend who’s lost a friend?” (114). As Yiyun Li points out, we are without names for those who have suffered the loss of someone. Except for orphan, widow and widower, there are no nouns to name the one’s who have lost—thereby pointing to the limits and sheer absence of nouns (but perhaps of all words, all language) when it comes to existential loss.
It is loss that cannot be followed or unfollowed by words—it is unspeakable. It is the place where reasons (and nouns) end. Loss’ time is always aftertime.