On The Street Where You Live by Yiyun Li, 2017
The magic trick:
Using an indirect comparison between mother and son
Today’s story provides us a very good example of indirect comparison.
Li works hard to sell the idea that mother and son, Becky and Jude, are opposites. Becky can’t begin to understand Jude, let alone help him.
But all the while, the careful reader will note the many invitations to compare the two. Becky isn’t so dissimilar at all from her son. She struggles to communicate, just like him. She is afraid of being alone, just like him.
It’s only in the story’s closing paragraphs that the comparison becomes a little more obvious, and, in the process, a little clunky. We get a reiteration of Becky’s inability to begin an extramarital affair because “she did not have the talent to betray anyone.” In the final sentence, a hypothetical Jude hypothetically argues that “he did not have the talent to be anyone other than himself.”
There you go. Compare away.
And that’s quite a trick on Li’s part.
Becky’s hope was that someday Jude would read her journal and recognize what he would miss if he didn’t pay attention to people. She tried to make those appearing in her journal interesting—interesting enough, but not too much. She did not want Jude to think the world was an exciting party and he was born to be left out, nor did she want him to be disappointed by its predictability and decide to stay in his cocoon.
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