Despite an ending that is slightly disappointing (although don’t ask me what would be better; I just know that I was hoping for a stronger image or some revelatory act and I got neither), this is my favorite New Yorker of 2008 so far. And I say that at the risk of learning later that this is a novel excerpt, since I notice that Yiyun Li has a novel coming out in February. But I think this is a stand-alone story or at least works like one.
One of the reasons I like the story is that it is that I’m something of Sinophile and so the fact that it is set in China is a plus for me. Teacher Fei, a retired art teacher, has never married. (We aren’t told what Fei means, by the way, but one character with the pronunciation Fei means to give up or abandon, and that seems appropriate for this character in more ways than one.) He currently lives with and cares for his aged mother, who isn’t his natural mother. But he has lived in some disgrace ever since he was accused of inappropriate behavior with a young student, even though he says it was never proven. We don’t really know the truth, though, as Teacher Fei is an unreliable narrator who spends his days telling lies to women he meets in internet chatrooms. In a magazine he reads about a girl who is suing her father because, the girl claims, his affair led to her parents’ divorce. Teacher Fei takes up the father’s case, certain that the girl’s accusations are false or, at least, unfair, and he seeks out the father to let him know that he understands what it’s like.
Unlike many New Yorker stories, it seems, this one actually is suspenseful. And, despite his unreliability and some aspects of his character (he created opportunities for his mother to kill herself in the days after his father’s death), he’s an engaging man and I’m interested in him. I want to know what he’s going to do.
I’ve been meaning to read Li’s award-winning collection of stories and now I think I must.
May 12, 2008: “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li