» Book Review
The Most Beautiful Dialect
Chemistry by Weike Wang
211 pages, paper, $24.95
Early in Chemistry, the unnamed protagonist describes how an atom is mostly empty space: “If you remove the empty space from every atom, the entire world’s human population could fit inside a sugar cube.” In a way, this brief comment on empty spaces applies to the brilliance of Weike Wang’s debut novel itself. The novel’s narrative suggests more than is stated plainly on the page. It is a book as much about what goes unsaid as it is about what is said. In this way, Weike Wang tells a story full of ambition, loneliness, humor, heart, and naiveté.
I hesitate to describe the plot because of its familiarity. A twenty-something-year-old struggles to complete her PhD, commit to her long-term boyfriend, and withstand the great deal of pressure on her academic success placed on her by her immigrant parents. The protagonist procrastinates, meets with her shrink regularly, and drinks a lot of wine—bottles and bottles of wine. However, the surprise of Chemistry is not in a riveting plot that charts new territory; it is in everything else.
There is something about the protagonist of Chemistry that makes her aimlessness charming. Perhaps it is her subtle intelligence. The novel is written in vignettes, none longer than a handful of pages, most under a page in length. These scenes rarely linger, and a gesture in Chemistry does all the work that another novel might have needed pages of interiority to explain. The precise language at times more closely resembles prose poetry or a braided lyric essay than it does conventional fiction prose. The closest example on the sentence level that comes to mind is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, although at times I felt like I could deduce influences from Amy Hempel and Annie Dillard.
Interspersed between scenes, the protagonist ruminates on the visible light spectrum, refraction, the scientific method, the history of scientific breakthroughs, and plenty of other scientific observations. These passages are always approachable and never felt overwhelmingly technical. Sometimes these facts are interspersed while in the midst of a scene, which shows the character’s wandering mind and helps the reader better understand the rationale behind her actions. For example, after the protagonist reveals that her mother knows the Shanghai dialect, which the protagonist doesn’t understand yet also considers the most beautiful dialect, Wang writes:
When I am born she does not speak (the dialect) with me.
Studies have shown that the brain feels exclusion not like a broken heart but like a broken bone. It is physical pain that the brain feels. (55)
This braiding of scientific data with narrative allows access to the particular way that the protagonist sees the world and interprets her own thoughts. The intelligence and external pressure put on the character to succeed make her refusal to complete her PhD and accept her boyfriend’s proposal acts of defiance. In a way, the protagonist is rebelling in the only way she knows how—via stagnation.
Stable relationships are few and far between in Chemistry. Yet these strained relationships don’t erupt into emotional outbursts. The conflict is impossible to separate from the protagonist’s identity as a first-generation immigrant who moved from China to America as a child. Her boyfriend needs more than she can give. She can’t even appreciate him fully because “it is the Chinese way to not explain any of that, to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon” (192). If her romantic relationship is strained from her Chinese qualities, her familial relationships are strained because she has become too Americanized. Unlike her parents, the protagonist has forgotten most of her birth language and doesn’t have much of a relationship with her relatives back in China. At times she is embarrassed by her mother’s accent and pronunciation, a common thread in immigrant literature. In an interesting reversal, however, both narratives also encourage the protagonist along both continuums. Her boyfriend begins learning Chinese in order to better relate. Meanwhile the protagonist has tremendous pressure to be successful in a conventional sense—a prestigious degree and job—placed upon her by her parents. In this way, the parents are pushing the protagonist further into the American dream narrative. This clash in both sets of relationships traps the protagonist between two worlds, making it impossible for her to fully inhabit one or the other.
Chemistry manages to capture a sense of knowing in the unknown. Scientific facts are approachable in a way that makes you consider whether you always knew the processes of meiosis and that lonsdaleite is a mineral that is “58% harder than diamond.” The whole book feels familiar in the same way, like running into a friendly acquaintance that you can’t quite remember where you met. After saying goodbye, you may find yourself hoping that you stumble across paths again soon, that the atomic empty space isn’t quite so vast.