by Meng Jin
Pushkin Press, $33
Traversing space, time and history, Little Gods is an ambitious debut novel by Chinese-American author Meng Jin. In a series of first-person narratives, a number of characters – a vain young doctor; an awkward but brilliant country boy; a disfigured old woman; a lost daughter – attempt to decode their lives and memories of the people and landscapes they have known in Shanghai and Beijing.
Their stories orbit around the central character of Su Lan, who is the only main character whose voice is never heard directly. Like the black holes she studies, Su Lan is discerned only by the way she bends light and time around her. She is a fascinating character in the context of Asian migrant fiction, blending the familiar trope of the sacrificial mother with the slightly less familiar one of the brilliant, beautiful and unattainable siren. In the classic tradition of Chinese heroines, everyone has an opinion about who she is and what she thinks – but she prefers to stay silent.
At times, this novel tries to do too much by attempting to decode the mysteries of Chinese families while also tackling the big-picture theories of quantum physics. There were moments when I found myself lost. But this is a book that rewards slow and careful reading. Jin has woven a rich, interlocking web, complex structurally as well as narratively. With Little Gods she challenges not only established scientific theories but also the conventions of time and character immutability in Western storytelling.
Jin's characters experience compression and expansion in time, space and eventually even fray into each other. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters echo and reflect; rival lovers swap faces; history loops and repeats. None of this is presented as surreal, though; this is a reality. One gets the sense that Jin – who was born in Shanghai but studied creative writing in America – is searching for a way to express a more Chinese experience of time and history.
As the characters orbit Su Lan, they also return again and again to a single date: June 4, 1989, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. This event impacts the characters in negligible or catastrophic ways; it is the catalyst for characters' self-examination at the heart of the book (as it has been for China, at least in some quarters.)
Although this is a book that tackles grand ideas and big moments in history, Little Gods is, at its heart, an intimate examination of family relationships, and the way these break when the people pursue their dreams. The ideal versions of ourselves we set up to pursue are the deities of the title. Sometimes, the pursuit of greatness will cost us our true selves.
Reviewed by Renee Liang