Weike Wang’s “Chemistry” is the most assured novel about indecisiveness you’ll ever read. Consider its opening lines: “The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, That’s not how this works.”
The boy is Eric; the girl, our narrator, goes unnamed. Both are graduate students in chemistry: He has just graduated; she has one year left. They have been together for four years, and their relationship has reached the point where whenever she invites friends over for dinner, they assume she will announce her engagement. But when Eric really does propose, she hovers, uncertain and unnerved.
Eric is cheerful, capable, from small-town Maryland. (The narrator wonders “why he left a place where every ice-cream shop is called a creamery to work seventy-hour weeks in lab.”) Their relationship is bashful and enormously endearing. He compliments her vials. When he gets the job offer he’s been hoping for, he puts a doily on her head and dances her around the kitchen. So why won’t she say yes?
The title “Chemistry” also, of course, alludes to love. But in Chinese the word for “chemistry” translates to “the study of change.” The novel is equally about the narrator’s slow self-transformation and her relationship with Eric. Both have arrived at a catalytic moment: “the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.”
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Her best friend is a successful doctor, her lab mate miraculously efficient, and the narrator finds it difficult not to compare their careers with her own, which seems to have stalled. In high school, she was an award-winning student. As an undergrad, she became fascinated with synthetic organic chemistry, not quite anticipating that in graduate school her job would require, say, repeating Step No. 8 of a 24-step synthesis for months, “just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65.”
“Chemistry” is narrated in a continual present tense, which, in conjunction with Wang’s marvelous sense of timing and short, spare sections, can make the novel feel like a stand-up routine. (Compare “the boy asks the girl a question” to a classic setup like “a horse walks into a bar.”) Personal crises are interrupted, to great effect, with deadpan observations about crystal structures and the beaching patterns of whales. The spacing arrives like beats for applause.
But the present tense also suggests the extent to which the past is, for this narrator, an ongoing anxiety. It’s hard for her not to contrast her immigrant parents’ phenomenal will unfavorably against her own. After all, her father made it from the backwaters of rural China to graduate school and America. The narrator explains, “Such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.”
Her parents expect nothing less. When she’s growing up, her father instructs, “Tell me the time in arc second per second or don’t tell me at all.” When she confesses to her mother that she’s leaving graduate school, her mother screams, “You are nothing to me without that degree.”
“Think small,” the narrator counsels herself, “think doable, think of something that might impress no one but will still let you graduate and find a job.” But she can’t think, she doesn’t know what she wants, and if she can’t decide, she may lose everything: Eric, her career, her self-worth.
Despite its humor, “Chemistry” is an emotionally devastating novel about being young today and working to the point of incapacity without knowing what you should really be doing and when you can stop. I finished the book and, after wiping myself off the floor, turned back to an early passage when the narrator asks her dog, “What do you want from me? You must want something.”
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator.
By Weike Wang
Knopf. 211 pp. $24.95