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New Yorker Fiction Review #177: "On the Street Where You Live," by Yiyun Li

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Review of a short story from the Jan. 9, 2017 issue of The New Yorker...

Since my subscription to The New Yorker has elapsed (first time in four years!) I've had to start listening to the short stories online, instead of reading them in the physical issue. I've had to do this periodically over the years when I lost a particular issue or occasionally just felt like it. Thankfully, The New Yorker publishes a full transcript of each of its short stories as well as (for most of them) an audio feed of the actual author reading the story. It's almost as if they want to make it as easy as possible for people to have access to good fiction so... thanks, New Yorker. Some day I promise to start subscribing again.

Anyway, "On the Street Where You Live," by Yiyun Li, is a rather long short story about a young mother, Becky, coping with her six year old son's autism. Told in close third person, the story examines Becky's internal struggles to process and deal with her son's condition which, as he gets older, becomes more and more pronounced and distances him more and more from other children. Thus, she sees the entire world and all of her encounters through the lens of someone with autism, through Jude's future eyes, wondering how he will adapt to certain situations or whether he will ever get to experience even the mundane things in life like random conversations with strangers.

Furthermore, she takes upon herself a great amount of responsibility for Jude's (her son's) condition and a great amount of fear for what will happen to him in the future. This is in stark contrast to her husband, from whom she feels herself gradually growing apart:

"Max [her husband] was the brave one, and bravery made questioning unnecessary."

As I mentioned above, I listened to this story online, and did not read it. Listening to a story is a different kind of experience than reading it. You notice different things and certain of an author's techniques and shortcomings seem more pronounced. This being a story laden with deep emotions, introspection, ideas, and other metaphysical concepts, it was somewhat easy to fade in and out of, which tends to happen more when you're listening as opposed to reading. After all, since it is not "plot-heavy," you don't risk missing a key development; whereever you "tune-in" again you find yourself immersed in a deep thought or observation. And Yiyun Li's voice was an absolute pleasure to listen to, so I actually listened to this story twice.

A couple great sentences that stuck out: 

On second guessing oneself:

"Becky was good at uncovering nonexistent motivations for her actions."

On the pain Becky experiences when, in music lessons, she hears her son and another child with autism singing the love song for which this short story is named:

"Love songs were written to sugarcoat life's plainness, to exaggerate the pain of living with or without love, and they were meant to be sung only by ordinary people. For Jude and William and children like them, love songs were another measure of their apartness from the world."

Intertextuality Alert: When Becky laments her ability to understand her son and his condition, she thinks back to the famous Kurt Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergernon," a story about a dystopian future in which people are forced to wear handicapping devices (weights, masks, etc.) so that no one has an advantage over anyone else.


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