Mr. Fong, a retired officer of the Chinese army, is doubly, paradoxically faithful: He expects to end up “resting with Marx and Engels in heaven.” Many of his comrades in Yiyun Li’s debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, are no less accommodating of various authorities, quoting Mao and ancient proverbs with equal reverence. But skepticism crops up in the younger generation—whippersnappers who get scholarships to America, contemplate abortions, and flirt in chat rooms. Li navigates the resulting fault lines in, among other stories, “Son,” which finds 33-year-old Han visiting his mother in Beijing. Han, a gay software engineer and naturalized American citizen, discovers that his mother has replaced her former deities—Communism and her late husband—with Jesus. Come Sunday, she tries to bring him to church, but he’d rather wait in Starbucks.
This sort of cultural revolution is, in addition to the capitalized variety, one of Li’s main themes. But the stories untouched by contemporary America—and the characters infused with a syncretism of folk wisdom and Maoist indoctrination—are the richest. Two eerie tales, “Immortality” and “Persimmons,” are narrated in the first person plural, conveying, better than any description could, a sense of community that subsumes its constituent selves. This collective voice is as exotic to American readers as the peasants in “Persimmons,” smoking pipes under the pagoda trees and waiting for rain.
A natural storyteller and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad, Li emigrated from Beijing to the U.S. in 1996 and subsequently mastered English. Writing in limpid prose, she shows no interest in authorial tricks. Her direct style works best when she sticks to telling us what happens. Physical gestures resonate: Mr. Fong, sitting on a curb, raises his hands for a friend to help him up; a pet bird bangs its head against the wall of its cage until it starts to go bald. In abstract territory, however, her ingenuous voice translates into a severe shortage of subtlety. She elucidates her characters’ feelings (“It upsets Han that his mother is humble for no good reason”) and explains her stories’ metaphors (“Life is not much different from the stock market”). When such exegesis intrudes, it saps the power of these otherwise affecting tales.