After White Ivy, I’ve unexpectedly stumbled upon a perfect double bill. If I’d had a bit more foresight I could have hold on and made this a dual review. This week I’ve been reading Meng Jin’s Little Gods; another debut novel by a Chinese-American writer, with a young female Chinese-American protagonist exploring and understanding her identity through a mother who looms large in her life. And yet they could hardly be more different.
Little Gods was released in January this year and is due out in paperback in February. It opens in Beijing on 4 June 1989 – not in Tiananmen Square, but in a maternity ward standing amongst the chaos as bodies line up in the halls and delivery rooms are taken over by urgent care. It’s an extraordinary scene, with echoes of Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma in taking a slanted, medical view on those events. For me it was doubly affecting – I spent the height of the Covid crisis this spring making daily trips to neonatal intensive care, and it was never clearer to me that while the rest of a hospital can (more or less) shut down in an emergency, maternity – motherhood – is a constant. In this Beijing maternity ward is a new mother, Su Lan, and her baby, one of the ‘little gods’ of the title. Her husband has gone missing and she has hardly slept or eaten. She asks the nurses cryptic questions about time.
After this start, the time shifts to 2007, shortly after Su Lan’s death, and the voice shifts to three different characters: Zhu Wen, Su Lan’s elderly neighbour in Shanghai; Li Yongzong, a physician and childhood friend of Su Lan’s who becomes her husband; and her US-raised daughter Liya, the baby born in Beijing. Liya, however, thinks she was born in Shanghai in 1988, and travels to China to find out more about her mother and her heritage; Zhu narrates in the second person to Liya. Through these three different voices Meng Jin unfolds the story of Su Lan, a brilliant scientist with two ardent admirers.
This is a very frustrating book – and I think that’s deliberate. The narrative voices are distancing and we are always kept at arm’s length from Su Lan. Often the narrative voices are retelling what other people have told them, so we are a further step removed again. A multi-perspective technique works best in novels with a huge canvas; or in a Rashomon-style narrative where the different experiences conflict with each other. Here they are being used to unfold and explore a single character, through which we are led to ponder space, time, identity and personal history. But it’s not just that we are kept at a distance from Su Lan by the storytelling; Su Lan is a character who keeps her distance from people.
Throughout the book I struggled to get hold of Su Lan, and I wondered why we are chasing after a callous character who clearly doesn’t want to be caught. It’s not even clear why her two ardent admirers are so besotted with her. Su Lan says things like ‘Do you know who I am, Li Yongzong? Do you know me at all?’ and leaves us (and poor Yongzong) hanging. Both she and Liya ‘sink’ into extensive, convoluted lies. She’s almost nihilistic, not believing in the ‘idea of China’, agreeing to marry but wanting not wedding or children, consumed with ‘lofty concerns’ but uninterested in the political events of 1989.
She was breaking, the edges of her, and through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.
I realised that I did not know her, and did not want to.
When Yongzong tells us that ‘immediately I could tell that she was a passionate and brilliant scientist’ it seems very flat. There is a lot of telling and not a lot of showing: we are told she is beautiful and brilliant, but have to take it at face value. Because Su Lan, it seems, uses theoretical physics in the place of character. She makes a Hallowe’en costume for her daughter and, instead of bonding, gives her a lecture about how ‘gathering information was a kind of irreversibility’. A letter to one of her devoted men, which affects Liya with its ‘beauty and authenticity’, includes lines like ‘Einstein was referring to… Minkowski space and the picture of physical reality as a four-dimensional existence, rather than the more intuitive model of three-dimensional space moving through time’. Romantic she is not.
Space and time, future and past, and their inter-relationships, feature strongly and regularly throughout the novel as Meng Jin explores humanity. But these passages which deal with science and the relationship between space and time sit very heavily within the narrative. I couldn’t help but think they are probably very meaningful to the author but would be better excised – kill your darlings, after all. Not only do they slow the storytelling but they take you out of the voices. Even Zhu Wen, the elderly neighbour concerned with ghosts and gods, starts narrating about entropy, being ‘limited to a linear experience of time’, and the ‘reconceptions’ of the ‘restriction of our temporal experience’. I don’t know many people who speak like that, even if they live next door to brilliant scientists.
Meng Jin is clearly aiming for profundity, and perhaps Su Lan is intended as a great metaphor – if so, it’s not clear what for. She is an offputting character to put as the sun around which the narrative turns and, as I say, this is almost certainly deliberate.
Some of the other descriptions and allusions don’t land either (‘her beauty like sunlight one could swim in’, people who ‘glittered with solidity and substance’). We are told that Liya has left fellow students ‘groping one another at parties, falling asleep in the library’ but I didn’t get a sense of her character outside the narrative either.
That said there is plenty to enjoy. The excellent opening scenes, for one, but also the initial mystery as Liya pieces together the truth of her birth and parentage is gripping; her meditations on her identity, otherness, and motherhood are thoughtful; and the evocation of Beijing is recognisable and strong. But overall I found Little Gods book flat and cold. A bit like a Beijing winter.