Readers who tackle Meng Jin’s pleasurably difficult debut novel, “Little Gods,” will experience both how engaging and disconcerting it is to try to fathom another’s inner life.
The character with this enigmatic inner life is Su Lan, a rising star in the field of physics in 1980s China. The reader must work backward to assemble a theory of Su Lan’s identity out of peripheral evidence instead of direct observation. Her story is told not by herself, but by a handful of people in her orbit, including, eventually, her grown daughter, who embarks on a journey across time and space to find her mother’s origins.
The book literally begins with “The End,” a chapter in which the heavily pregnant Su Lan enters the delivery unit of a Beijing hospital with her husband. The date is June 3, 1989 – the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Her daughter, Liya, is born a day later amid the chaos; meanwhile, her husband disappears and Su Lan’s world is shattered. Su Lan begins a long, slow slide into entropy, a motif by which Jin explores the symbiotic processes of self-invention and self-destruction.
Her decline is foreshadowed most strongly when construction workers paint the character (chai, meaning to tear down or take apart) on the side of her aging apartment building. But even when she tries to start afresh by moving to America, she never manages to complete her Ph.D. or publish her theory of time. Years go by, and Liya goes to college. But during Liya’s first semester, Su Lan dies, alone and seemingly unfulfilled. Completely lost and unmoored, Liya drops out of college and flies to China to begin her search for her mother’s secret history.
Through vignettes of the past, Jin unveils the many facets of Su Lan, beginning with the commentary of a nurse who sees in Su Lan a “face that could become anything with just a few lines of makeup, that, like a mirror, reflects the viewer back upon herself.” Upon this blank canvas, members of Su Lan’s inner circle pile contradictory observations like layers of paint. Su Lan can “[make] herself beautiful,” which, in combination with her intellect, inspires a “kind of terror” among her male colleagues by completely subverting their misogynistic expectations. There is also something dark at her center, and perhaps “her excellence, her beauty, her composure” are all actually “an attempt to control” it. But she is so disarming that she can “know you only as you knew yourself.”
It’s clear that none of these descriptions are complete truths, even though each narrator is convinced that he or she knows Su Lan best. Their contradictory accounts invite the reader to preside over a court of competing witnesses. And it’s a pleasure to sample each of the narrators’ worthy digressions into their own fully realized memories and meditations. Some voices are more perspicacious than others – especially that of Su Lan’s elderly neighbor Zhu Wen, who sees in Su Lan “two people: the one that moved through the world, and the one that created that other apparent self.”
Like its title, which describes the “desperate” power of revolutionary youths, “Little Gods” is full of dizzying contradictions. It speaks at once admiringly and dismissively of the foibles of its subjects. The world it describes is by turns violent and tender, selfish and totally altruistic. Jin treads purposefully over a vast landscape of difficult subjects – aging, class anxiety, political instability, intellectual insecurity, racism, migration – unflinchingly deconstructing and then moving beyond each. It is that willingness to follow such threads to their full conclusion, to accept “strange consolation” when it comes, which gives “Little Gods” its greatest strength.