Monday, June 25, 2018

Chemistry by Weike Wang

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.

So begins the delightful and insightful little novel by Weike Wang entitled Chemistry. It is Wang’s debut novel about a young woman working on a PhD in chemistry. Her boyfriend roommate is also about to receive a PhD, and he proposes to her often, but is always put off until 'later'. Besides loving the whacky story of this couple’s courtship, I also relished the asides about academic writing, competition amongst grad students, and remarkable little facts about the universe we live in.

Wang got her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Harvard where she also earned a PhD in Public Health. Beyond that, she got an MFA from Boston university. She understands the politics of graduate education very well. Her narrator (whose name I don’t think the reader ever gets) is at a standstill in her life. Besides pressure from her boyfriend to marry him and then accompany him to a Midwestern university where he will teach, she is also under constant pressure from her Chinese parents to finish her PhD and begin her career. But while she has always been an excellent and diligent student, she seems unable to come up with a creative idea for her dissertation, and so is also under pressure from her Advisor. 

Despite all the pressure, or because of it, she seems unable to move forward on any of these issues. She remarks that she has read somewhere that “the average number of readers for a scientific paper is 0.6,” with the clear implication that it is really not worth the effort to produce such papers. 
What use is this work in the long run? I ask myself in the room when I am alone. The solvent room officially, but I have renamed it the Fortress of Solitude.
Unable to answer affirmatively to her boyfriend, but not wanting to leave the relationship, she makes up a list of pros and cons to help her to decide—the making of such lists a lifelong habit of hers.
The pros are extensive. 
Eric cooks dinner, Eric cooks great dinners. Eric hands me the toothbrush with toothpaste on it and sometimes even sticks in in my mouth. Eric takes out the trash, the recycling; waters all our plants because I can’t seem to remember that they’re living things.
Unlike the narrator, Eric sails through graduate school and is celebrated for his creative work. While she in a fit of frustration intentionally breaks a number of beakers in the lab, and stops attending class. 
It is common knowledge now that graduate students make close to nothing and that there are more PhD scientists in this country than there are jobs for them.
Afraid to accept the marriage proposal, and even more afraid to tell her parents that she is abandoning her doctoral studies, she takes on students, tutoring them in math and chemistry to eek out a living. The pressure from her parents is constant. She recalls how she was forbidden from attending social activities by her brilliant father. 
I once had a math teacher who made me play a game. The teacher is my father and the game involves a deck of cards….He sees no value in a school dance. 
The rule is I cannot go anywhere until I have beaten him, and he knows I can’t beat him.
While this is a sometimes uproariously funny book, there is a cutting edge of genuine sorrow and desperation that drives it. She sees her parent’s marriage as one of constant fighting, and she cannot let herself marry given what she sees. 
At some point my mother, probably to comfort me, tells me that there is no good marriage without constant fighting. Fighting is how a husband and wife talk.  
I pose a hypothetical to Eric. If I go with you, will you take the other question off the table? {i.e. the question of marriage.} 
Until when?

Until forever? 

He doesn’t think so.
All in all this is a funny and fine little novel, and the questions raised are more serious than I’ve made them appear. Also, the narrator is much more conflicted by and caring for her parents than I’ve made her appear. As she tries to find a way to reconcile both with her parents and Eric, she reminds herself:
In Chinese, there is another phrase about love. It is not used for passionate love, but the love between family members. In translation, it means I hurt for you.
And she reminds herself that she hurts for her parents and for her devoted boyfriend, so she loves them after all. This is a beautiful little book, and it can be read in a single sitting.

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