Weike Wang, “Chemistry” (Vintage, 2018)

The Chinese word for chemistry is hua xue. The first character means to change, transform, melt. The second character means to learn. Said with a different inflection, xue could mean snow, hua could mean speech, and chemistry becomes the melting of snow, becomes the learning of speech.

No, this isn’t a chemistry text, nor is it a Chinese language guide; it’s a novel about a woman who comes to several dead ends in her life, and has no idea what to do next. In her NYT review, Alexandra Alter called it an “anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision.” Wang pushed back on that a little in her Asia Society blog interview: “the novel ends in the middle of [the narrator’s] development. She’s on the upswing as far as potential for change, but you don’t see the victory dance.” I’m not sure I like “coming of age” for someone who’s well into adulthood, but there is a coming-to-terms with, or at least a recognition of, a number of problematic relationships she’s been at the mercy of: with her mother, her father, her boyfriend, her career goals, and her identity as a Chinese-American woman and daughter.

I didn’t notice until I read the Penguin Reader’s Guide that only the boyfriend Eric is named. That’s interesting. Except for the narrator – who, naturally enough in a first-person story, doesn’t refer to herself as anything other than “I” – everyone but Eric is referred to by their relationship to her: parents, best friend, lab mate, math student. It almost feels like this is an inversion of the usual thing where the named characters are the most important. That Eric’s relationship isn’t labeled fits with both the odd relationship they had at the outset, and his departure midway through the novel.

The brittle humor and style – many smallish sections, about a page or so – keep things from edging into sentimentality, but there’s plenty of emotional territory covered. As well, some scenes are downright hilarious. Early on, our narrator loses her place in grad school; whether it’s because she’s just not a good enough chemist, or because she doesn’t love chemistry enough to do it well, is one of the issues she’s struggling with. Best Friend tries to help:

The best friend has sent me a present. It is a stuffed doll with yellow yarn for hair and two Xs for eyes and a line for a mouth. It is called a Dammit Doll. I am to grasp this doll by the legs and whack the stuffing out of it, while shouting, Dammit, dammit, dammit. I try, but the doll has proven to be made from industrial grade stuff. I have named it Science, You Motherfucker.

I can sympathize; mine would be named Math.

The beginning of the novel finds our narrator working outrageously long hours as a graduate student in her chem lab, yet unable to produce the result she needs. The confidence she felt as an outstanding student in high school is long gone, and she’s losing the love she had for the field:

Coming in, I think myself the best at chemistry. In high school, I win a national award for it. I say, cockily, at orientation, Yes, that was me, only to realize that everyone else had won it as well, at some point, In addition to awards I have never won.

I am a senior in college when I decide to go into synthetic organic chemistry. I am mesmerized by the art of it. The purpose of this kind of chemistry is to build a molecule that is already present in nature, but to build it better than nature, in the least number of steps, with a beautiful key step. Technique is everything. Percent yield is everything. For months I am running the same reaction over and over again, the seventh step of a twenty-four-step synthesis, just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65 because anything under 60 is unacceptable to the advisor. Then for months, I am running step eight. Then for years, the advisor is asking, Do we have it, the molecule? And I say, no, it is still at large.
In time, you find yourself no longer mesmerized.

I’m reminded of an article by Kamil Ahsan about the falling-out-of-love-with-biology that happens when you “inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years.”

Add to this her sense that her boyfriend’s academic career is soaring, and she feels left behind. “Please stop, just for a little while, and let me catch up. How do you expect me to marry you if you never let me catch up?” she whispers at night as he sleeps.

Then there are parental expectations, both expressed and unexpressed. Her father has set a high bar by example:

My father’s is the classic immigrant story.
He is the first in his family to go to high school and college and graduate school and America. He is the first to become an engineer. …
But such progress is made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.

Her mother has a very different story.

My mother’s mother was one of the best architects in Shanghai.
In the late 1970s, she helps reconstruct the Bund. During this time, she tells my mother, still a teenager, that if she were ever to settle down and have children, she need only had daughters. Daughters have more chu xi and xiao shun, she says. Chu xi is the ability to succeed. Xiao shun is filial piety. My grandmother believes this because she was one of those daughters – having accomplished a great deal, having married well, raised two kids, and taken care of her parents in the last years of their lives.
But to follow my father to America, my mother inevitably gives up both.
And for this reason, I think she believes herself to have failed.
Then the moment of shock sets in. A daughter? You must be mistaken. I do not have a daughter. And if I did, how would I raise her if I cannot set for her an example?
Upon putting that car in reverse and leaving, she thinks, finally, a chance to start anew. But then she realizes that she cannot get very far without my father. There are many things she cannot read or say. And money, she doesn’t have her own money.
Maybe she also comes back because of you, the shrink says. The maternal instinct kicking in.
If she does, she never shows it.

This not only sets up high expectations – anything less than a PhD is unacceptable – but adds to the narrator’s reluctance to marry Eric and follow him when he is offered the job of his dreams at Oberlin.

All of this culminates in a meltdown (chemistry, the study of melting) in the lab and the breaking of beakers. She is put on medical leave and sent to a shrink, then cut from the program. Eric gets his dream job and moves without her. Now what?

Now what turns out to be continuing therapy, watching her best friend have a baby and leave her husband when he cheats on her, and working as a math and science tutor. Without the pressure of the lab and the exhausting work schedule, without the constant self-comparison to Eric, and without the pressure to decide about marriage, some things start to sort themselves out. Her memories of her parents grow less damaging. Her confusion about how to keep her Chinese identity while remaining American starts to become less burdensome. And she starts to enjoy teaching.

Science is used as example and metaphor throughout the novel.

Biologically, physical strength comes from mitochondria, which are organelles that generate all of our body’s energy. A unique feature of mitochondria is that they have their own DNA. Whereas the rest of the body is built on code that is half paternal and half maternal, mitochondrial DNA is entirely maternal and passed down from the mother.

Thus the narrator, instead of fearing she will disappoint her mother, can claim the strength she has inherited from her. Finding a different path does not have to mean failure; it can mean success is redefined, and becomes more fulfilling.

And if you think in terms of the nuclear family, physics teaches more than equations:

For a long time, scientists did not know why the nucleus of an atom held together. Theoretically, it should not. It is made up of all positive charges that should repel, but somehow, it persists.

It’s not by accident Wang chose science for the background of her first novel. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard in Chemistry, completed a doctorate in Public Health, and then picked up an MFA from Boston University. It’s interesting, in this STEM-focused era, how some people find their way back to the humanities.

I put this book on my TBR list when I first heard about it a couple of years ago; the blend of science and cultural adaptation appealed to me. Then I came across Wang’s story “Omakase” in last year’s BASS. Interestingly, it involves a woman moving to another city for a man, a man who annoyed me greatly. In my wrap-up post for the volume, I said I wasn’t sure about it yet; that’s still the case, but it was enough to move this novel from list to bookshelf for this year’s read.

I think the style was used to great effect here; a novel with a more fluid style, scene transitions and more filled-out prose, would have felt unduly heavy and almost trite. Instead, the novel bubbles and bounces, leaving its marks in concentrated packets. Of course, I enjoyed the use of science. And it turns out I like academic novels even when they stop being academic halfway through.

BASS 2019: Weike Wang, “Omakase” from The New Yorker 6/18/2018

Stories come to me in waves. I will have an idea, usually a setup, and then in the months after, build out and then in ….
For “Omakase”, my husband and I had just gone out for sushi ….what was odd about the meal was that for the entire night my husband and I were the only customers. I just found that setup interesting and rich. What could happen if a couple came here and chef was slightly off – jilted, perhaps – and overshared as people do when no one is around? How intimate could a conversation get? How much do we really know about each other? And what kind of history goes into an interaction that seems fine and easy on the surface? I thought about the story for over half a year. When I sat down to write it, it was done in a week.

Weike Wang, Contributor Note

Jake Weber’s post on this story tells us he found it frustrating; he even provides a handy-dandy list of the most frustrating moments. Frustrating? I found it enraging. I wanted to smack The Man – and The Woman, for that matter – around, and towards the end, I wanted to grab a box of toothpicks and hand them to her one at a time, as fast as she could handle them (the story is available online if you haven’t read it and don’t know what I’m talking about). But, as usual, blogging about these stories makes me calm down, pick up the book I’ve thrown across the room, and see if I can see something deeper, or at least articulate my annoyance in literary terms.

The couple decided that tonight they would go out for sushi. Two years ago, they’d met online. Three months ago, they’d moved in together. Previously, she’d lived in Boston, but now she lived in New York with him.
The woman was a research analyst at a bank downtown. The man was a ceramic-pottery instructor at a studio uptown. Both were in their late thirties, and neither of them wanted kids. Both enjoyed Asian cuisine, specifically sushi, specifically omakase. It was the element of surprise that they liked. And it suited them in different ways. She got nervous looking at a list of options and would second-guess herself. He enjoyed going with the flow.

That first paragraph tees up the story better than I’d realized on first read. Each element is examined further in later paragraphs, and the rather sparse introduction blooms into something much more informative. I particularly like that she is looking to relieve her anxiety, and he is looking to have fun.

My first problem is just a personal preference. Some people hate second person, some dislike dialect; for me, constructions such as “the man” and “the woman” feel so unnatural, so contrived as to poke a stick in my eye. I accept that there’s nothing wrong with this kind of narration, and it works, particularly when there are very few characters to worry about. Here there are four active characters, and none of which have names. But I really dislike it.

My second problem is that a lot of issues come up – racism and ethnic conflict, differences between how immigrants, their children, and their children’s children interact with the US, privilege of race and sex, parental and societal expectations, the urban landscape. These come up, but they’re merely toyed with then batted away by another issue, as if merely mentioning them is enough to generate some insight in the reader, while all the while we’re dealing with The Man’s asshattery.

The relationship between The Man and The Woman had me by the throat, and didn’t leave much room for worrying about Chinese-Japanese relations (which I would have liked to have known a lot more about) or what it feels like for a rule-following first-generation American from China to see a (maybe) second-generation American from… well, somewhere in the Far East, wearing purple nail polish and sporting a nose stud and a lip ring (something else I’d like to know a lot more about).

And playing in the background is this intriguing stuff about Asian pottery, both Chinese and Japanese, which of course makes me want to go look up all the unfamiliar terms and learn more about the stuff. While it’s used here to emphasize The Man’s know-it-allness, both in relation to the chef and to The Woman’s mother, it serves to distract me from those relationship issues and send me googling yunomi and sancai glaze. I was sure I would use teacups as the header image, but in the end, I felt the toothpicks were more central to the heart of the story.

And of course omakase, a sushi service similar to a tasting menu in Western restaurants. I’d never heard of it (sorry, I appreciate the idea of sushi, but don’t ask me to eat it).

…[A]n omakase chef determines at the spur of the moment what will appear on the plate. This is typically driven by the ingredients available to them, which are customarily selected based on both quality and seasonality.
That being said, the philosophy of the chef will also guide what they serve, and this is important for diners to keep in mind. The omakase experience can vary dramatically depending on the philosophy and cooking style of the chef.
At Sushi Taro in Washington, D.C.—about which Michelin inspectors say, “The overall experience at the omakase counter is truly stellar”—chef/owner Nobu Yamazaki says, “We start off with a few appetizers to see how the customer reacts to our food, then if we think they can go for [dishes] a little more adventurous, or a little more of something they’ve never had before, we’ll try to put those out there little by little.” According to Yamazaki, his most pressing concern is whether or not a diner is enjoying their meal. “Sometimes we might just completely change it in the middle of the course,” he explains. “It really depends on the customer.”

Guest editor Anthony Doerr plays on this in his Introduction comment: “a story as meticulously structured as any omakase dinner and which will wake you up to the minute-by-minute realities of white privilege as well as anything you’ll read this year.” I see part of what he means: the story procedes in small bites, each having their own flavor, working towards a climax. I wonder if I would have thought of that had I not read his comment. Probably not. But there’s a lot more going on here than white privilege. Male privilege, for one.

You worry too much, the man said whenever she brought up the fact that she still didn’t feel quite at home in New York. And not only did she not feel at home; she felt that she was constantly in danger.
You exaggerate, the man replied.
At the restaurant, he gave the woman a look of his own. This look said two things: one,you worry too much, and, two, this is fun—I’m having fun, now you have fun.
The woman was having fun, but she also didn’t want to get food poisoning.
As if having read her mind, the man said, If you do get sick, you can blame me.

The literary omakase leads to a penultimate victory but ultimate defeat… maybe. Because we don’t know what reaction The Woman, already piqued to the point of toothpicks, has to the final pat on the head and that condescending advice to stop overthinking. Which, in this case, means stop thinking and let The Man do and say whatever he wants without objection. Does she fall back in line to think about it some more? Or, already feeling something, does she let him have it? I fear the first; I hope for the latter.

I found the heart of the story in the relationships: not just The Man and The Woman, but also The Man and the chef, The Woman and the chef, and both of them with the waitress; and then there’s The Woman and her mother, The Woman and her friends. They all bounce off of each other in different ways, showing different expectations of women, of Asians, of daughters. At one point, it seems there should be some rearrangement: The Man should be with the waitress, and The Woman should be with the chef. I’m thinking the waitress is humoring The Man and subtly making fun of him – which he can’t recognize because he assumes all flattery is earned – and then the chef makes what might be an anti-Chinese slur. Good for The Woman, she immediately speaks up (after pulling some egg from her tooth) and tells him she’s Chinese. The Man, again, decides she’s making too much of this. This is his shining moment of white privilege.

But not the only moment. The Woman wonders if he is attracted to her Chineseness; no, she decides, it’s not yellow fever, they’re “merely one out of a billion or so Asian girl–white guy couples walking around on this earth.” Yeah. Exactly. But she doesn’t want to overthink things. In her TNY interview, Wang says, “Not having to think about one’s race is, I believe, a privilege. This woman is more preoccupied with race than the man is, because race has permeated more aspects of her life.” And heaven forbid The Man might have to consider someone else’s point of view. This is perhaps the foundation of contemporary racism: it’s so much easier for white people to not have to think about race if there aren’t not-white people pointing it out all the time. Giving up even a little white privilege – telling those jokes, making those generalizations – seems like an unacceptable infringement for some. Getting rid of not-white people seems like a solution. The other solution, learning basic manners and getting to know not-white people as individuals, is just too much work.

As I said, there’s much more than white privilege here, too. The waitress pulls a stunt by bullshitting about wine, a trick The Man falls for – partly because he’s flirting with her, and parrtly because he must always show he Knows Everything – but not The Woman. She keeps her silence, though. As does the chef, when The Man makes more of a fool of himself by insisting he’s seen the man working there on prior nights. The chef is taciturn, letting out information in small bites (again). He answers more freely when The Woman asks him, indicating more of a connection between them. Maybe it’s partly because she isn’t acting like a fool, but there’s an implication it’s more of a racial connection. Until he brings in what well could be a slur about the Chinese manager at his former job. It’s interesting that The Woman stands here ground for the first time in this exchange, prepping her for the toothpick scene.

So again, the effort to look beyond my initial reaction paid off. I appreciate a lot more about the story having screened out the overwhelming noise of The Man and taking some advice from both the author and editor.