“little gods”, a debut novel by Meng Jin, is exceptionally fine; the author deeply understands aspects of Chinese culture in this novel about a woman physicist and her daughter, the former poised for greatness which she never achieves, and her somewhat bitter daughter, seeking her own identity (she’s American) and that of her missing father. And the very tenuous relationship between this mother and her partly unwanted daughter is the backdrop of the book.
The physicist, Su Lan, is a fascinating character, both brilliant and self-destructive. The novel does proceed forward and through flashbacks; born into extreme poverty, she spends her entire life running away from that poverty and the social stigmas that come with it. She is first noticed by two brilliantly rendered men, both physicists, at the high school the three attend; the two young men become fast friends, as one, Yongzong, from a stable middle class family where he’s much indulged as the only male child and whose education is the primary goal of the entire family (his two sisters receive nothing of the kind), and whose father has relentless dreams of his success as a physicist. The other young man is from the country, a peasant, but who’s both brilliant and popular; Yongzong befriends him partly out of pity, partly because he’s so competitive. When the results of the examinations come in from the high school, it turns out that the virtually seemingly unnoticed Su Lan has come in first, the peasant young man second, and Yongzong a shameful third, as he virtually blows his chances on the exam as he comes to understand that he ‘s starting to refuse to lead the life preordained by his father; he goes to medical school, instead, which is seen as a failure. Meng Jin weaves these three lives together admirably and with complex nuances; the astute reader will never quite trust Yongzong’s friendship with the other man: the former has absorbed too much of the manipulative strain that’s his father’s basic character trait. This dialectic between the two men is one of the finest parts of this novel (the “little gods” of the title are, in essence, these children).
Well into their college careers, both men receive a surprise letter from Su Lan, and both pursue her, though Yongzong basically steals her away from his friend in one of those great betrayals of alleged friendship; it’s clear that Su Lan is looking for a successful husband to choose for her own future; she marries the wrong man, but has one daughter with Yongzong, he eventually vanishes into the political protests we associate with Tienamen Square. The newly married couple live next to an old woman, who becomes fascinated by both mother and daughter. She, too, is a fascinating study in the mores of old China, based upon ancestor worship and the belief in ghosts, which, in this novel, is entirely credible. Su Lan’s frequent acceptances into great universities in China and America always leads to failure; she cannot get along with people and, as fashionable as she becomes, cannot escape her past. And her daughter is correct in believing that her mother was entirely ambivalent about her; Su Lan dies young and unfulfilled while her daughter returns from America to China to learn her past and try to find her father: those journeys are brilliantly rendered, full of surprises and subtleties. Americans are so used to reading about success stories, including all those rags to riches stories; that Su Lan never succeeds professionally goes against the grain of the American narrative of success, which is part of its great strength.
Su Lan’s personal meditations about space and time and physics are absolutely brilliantly rendered by Meng Jin; she believes that it should be possible to move backwards in time as well as forward, which meshes deeply with certain Chinese belief systems, as well, possibly, with contemporary physics; so that in her journey back to the small village from which she fled, the daughter will be living in both the present, future and past concurrently: memory, of course , does work thus, but by putting this journey in the context of experimental physics, Meng Jin’s novel moves into occasional greatness. It’s a complex and subtle novel indeed, sad yet partly redemptive, and one of the best debut novels of 2020.