Love and physics collide in Meng Jin's wrenching Chinese-American tale 'Little Gods'
Meng Jin’s ambitious debut novel, “Little Gods” (Custom House, 288 pp., ★★★ out of four stars), opens amid the chaos of 1989’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. As a Beijing hospital braces for wounded protesters, a woman named Su Lan arrives to give birth to her daughter. In the recovery room, she asks the nurse some peculiar questions: “Do you believe in time? Do you believe that the past is gone and the future does not exist?”
Su Lan, a quantum physicist, is urgently concerned with time and its relationship to family. Can we control our children’s destinies? Can we rewrite our pasts to improve their futures? Her exploration of those questions makes for a surprising and wrenching tale.
Jin tells Su Lan's story through multiple narrators, all of whom were affected by Su Lan’s enigmatic personality. A neighbor in Shanghai, Zhu Wen, recalls her as a brilliant but troubled widow in a place where a “beautiful, confident woman without a husband was a dangerous, hungry beast.” Yongzong, a former classmate, recalls how Su Lan toyed with his affections and those of an academic rival. And Liya, Su Lan’s daughter, has returned to China in 2007, after her mother’s death, to unravel the mystery of her father’s identity and the circumstances of his death.
Su Lan’s secrecy about herself is largely a function of fear: In 1989, China wasn’t long past the Cultural Revolution, during which the government killed and demonized intellectuals, and the novel suggests early that the political tensions that led to the Tiananmen protests marked an emotional breaking point. All of that made her a difficult mom when she and Liya lived in America: Her idea of advice for healthy living was “the thing about life is to endure it,” and she once tried to dress Liya for Halloween as “Maxwell’s demon,” a high-concept metaphor from electromagnetic physics.
It’s a bad costume but a loving gesture. Su Lan is obsessed with a theory about how to create a world free of entropy, where things don’t fall apart – a poignant (if at times convoluted) metaphor for a parent’s responsibility in troubled times. Faced with “the tendency of the universe toward disorder,” she hungers to run the clock back to repair her relationship choices – or forward, to a safer place.
Jin’s choice to keep Su Lan’s own voice out of the story makes structural sense. By refracting her through those who knew her, but not fully, we feel how tragically unknowable she was. Yongzong’s exasperation with Su Lan’s ambiguous flirting, for instance, can be sweetly funny: “According to quantum mechanics, there existed a small possibility that solid matter could penetrate matter. Technically, if I sat there and hit my head against her wall forever, eventually, I would fall through.”
“Little Gods” is built from familiar tropes: love amid violence, lost parents, secrets held by those closest to us. But Jin brings a fresh imagination to them, thoughtfully leveraging the language of physics without making the narrative cold or overladen. Her ultimate principle is simple and effective: How do we preserve love in the face of the forces that threaten it?