“The Age of Goodbyes” by Li Zi Shu commences on page 513 with an opening line that states, rather matter-of-factly, that “You’re reading this book, which is a novel.” The wry overture is not just a sardonic welcome, but a prelude to a far more expansive story: With the number 513 in reference to the deadly riots in Kuala Lumpur of May 13, 1969, Li’s interweavings encompass both the historical and literary in one taut breath.
Embossed with a bilateral mirror, the reflective cover of “The Age of Goodbyes,” released Nov. 8, is much like its specular set of narratives. The trilogy of storylines meld around and reflect off each other. In the first, a woman named Du Li An marries a triad leader after her lover is imprisoned in the aftermath of the 13 May Incident. In the second, “you” are a hotel resident reading about Du Li An in a novel titled “The Age of Goodbyes,” while the third follows a literary critic known as The Fourth Person in his investigations of Shaozi, the pseudonymous author of “The Age of Goodbyes.” Entrenched within these overlapping stories, the novel is at once metafictional, dimensional and echoic, layered with perception and trailing plotlines.
As Du Li An’s life sporadically scales its peaks and valleys and The Fourth Person compiles his career-long scrutiny of Shaozi, so too do “you” search for meaning in “your” own. With both mythic flair and tangible humanity, Li toggles back and forth between narratives as if hopscotching from tale to tale, imbuing each with energetic acuity. At times playfully sharp and at others deeply introspective, her vision is equal parts biting and cathartic as it traces lineage and memory across the contours of time.
The intoxicating descriptions of “The Age of Goodbyes,” translated elegantly from its original Chinese by Y.Z. Chin, embody a heady montage of prose, reaming with glass shards of detail. Entrancingly visual with its storytelling while inquisitively incisive in its moments of constructed literary discourse, Li’s voice scintillates with moods both earthly and beguiling. Though intermittently overwritten, the novel weaves a succulent tapestry of place and time that grounds itself in the lyrical details of Li’s envisionment. Finding significance in the unsung stories of history, her writing adopts a grand purview eager to invite.
At times, the novel appears to reach outward from the page and wrap around the reader, blurring the boundary between fiction and reality. With her immersive second-person narration, Li slyly augurs her audience’s perspective with a self-aware matter-of-factness: “Now you know why (“The Age of Goodbyes”) was exiled to the ‘Other’ shelf in the library. It really is hard to pin down. Its internal logic is a mess and it often contradicts itself.”
The self-described “internal logic” of Li’s heavily architected collage of storylines does, indeed, feel hazy; the granularity of its fabulation contributes to a heavy sense of impenetrableness. As if determined to remain perpetually out of reach, clarity feels elusive within the text’s reeling, hypnotic configurations. With emotional gravity somewhat obscured behind its labyrinthine plot and manufactured intertextuality — Li’s footnotes construct a breadcrumb trail of fictional critical texts — there’s little to moor the novel by way of concreteness.
The flickers of incongruence, fragmentation and even chaos lurking beneath the tremendous breadth of “The Age of Goodbyes” denies closure to its audience of witnesses — perhaps even purposefully so, given its tension with history, division and identity. In the novel’s closing act, the spires of conflict and anguish pierce once more, then trickle away in a conclusion thieved by sterility yet lilting with cleverness.
Though not without its learning curves, “The Age of Goodbyes” is a monumental novel rife with deep contemplations, witty writing and inventive storytelling. Behind the curtain of history, it reimagines personal intimacy in a searing and evocative chronicle humming with mystique.