'Chemistry: A Novel' Is About A Scientist Whose Plans Get Reconstituted
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The narrator of Weike Wang's new novel is never named, but she's on her way to being called doctor with a Ph.D. in chemistry. It's what her parents, who are from China, want and what she's worked hard for. Her solid and loving boyfriend, Eric, proposes marriage. She says, ask me tomorrow. Then this narrator's tomorrow goes into a tailspin.
"Chemistry" is the novel. And Weike Wang, who earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Harvard and has published fiction in Ploughshares, Glimmer Train and other literary reviews, joins us from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
WEIKE WANG: Of course. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And why no name for your narrator, at least one we hear?
WANG: I think when I hear a name, there's something specific that is attached to it. And I wanted this narrator to have a little bit more of a universal sense around her. I think a lot of graduate students undergoing master's program, Ph.D. programs can relate to a girl like this and also just the question of marriage. Everybody - every girl, every boy has thought of that question. Her culture is part of her. But I think what I wanted to underscore was that she's also just a person as well.
SIMON: There's an alarming scene when your narrator is, I think, 12. Her mother hides knives under her father's pillow.
SIMON: And they have these epic - I can't even say quarrels - they're absolutely fights. What's...
SIMON: And this is how your narrator learns about love.
SIMON: I read that, and I thought, no wonder she doesn't want to get married.
WANG: (Laughter) Yeah, these are big fights. The problem, I think, with some immigrant couples who come here is that they really just have each other. And it's a really intense kind of love but also a really intense kind of reliance. And that can also build a lot of deep resentment that weaves into that reliance and love. And that's what the narrator's seeing growing up. I think I want her to come to terms with the fact that parents are complicated. They're human...
SIMON: Yeah, parents were your age once.
WANG: Yes, yes. It's hard to believe.
SIMON: Yeah. You quote in this book an old middle school joke about, I think, (laughter)...
WANG: Yeah (laughter).
SIMON: ...Asian kids...
SIMON: ...What do you want to be, a doctor or a doctor?
WANG: Yeah (laughter).
SIMON: Was that what it was like for you?
WANG: A little. It's a funny joke. And I think jokes are always rooted in maybe more than 50 percent truth, right? And that was kind of what it was like for me. I had - I wouldn't even say it was this innate ability to do well in science and math, but I grew up being capable of doing well in science and math. And I think that kind of joke followed me throughout. So it's hard to differentiate, you know, how much of that is good-natured. I think most of it is good-natured. They're just trying to tease you for being smart. And I think a lot of smart kids (laughter) get that regardless of what ethnicity they are.
SIMON: Yeah. Obviously, this book is derived from the life of someone who's a chemistry student...
SIMON: ...An accomplished student, graduate student. Do you think the different background you have in literature can bring a different perspective to what you wind up writing?
WANG: I think so.
SIMON: You're not an Iowa Writers' Workshop product.
WANG: (Laughter) I'm not. So my first teacher was Amy Hempel. And she sort of taught me a different kind of writing or opened my eyes to a different kind of writing that was more to the point or a little bit more sparse but not sparse, necessarily, in human emotion or story. And I guess I found that really gripping because in science you're really trying to get your point across in the clearest way. It's actually not great to be the most long-winded (laughter) science researcher when you're trying to write grants or anything. And then when I started this novel, I took my style and just made the story a little bit longer but hopefully not trying to put in excess.
SIMON: There's a moment in the book that absolutely stopped me, when you learn the narrator's father lost a sister but never mentions it. And...
SIMON: ...I believe your line was something like, the Chinese way is to build a wall around your emotions that can only be seen from the moon. That just got to me. And I thought, well, but there is this book.
SIMON: This is not your parents' story, right?
WANG: No, it's not. I have close friends who - they immigrated out from very rural areas. And I think these kinds of things happened during that period. There was the cultural revolution.
WANG: ...And especially if you are growing up in rural China - and during that time, with a lot of children, sometimes it's hard to find medical help for everyone. So that was one of the stories that one of my really close friends - that it happened to. And she thought it was very weird that her dad never mentioned it. But it speaks a lot about sort of the father figure in this culture, especially the father figure who emigrates out.
SIMON: Yeah. You mean the father must be unremitting and invulnerable.
WANG: Yeah, very stoic, working at - processing at a higher level to see the big picture - right? - giving their kids food, water, a roof over their heads - sort of always moving forward, this kind of father.
SIMON: Yeah, not looking back.
SIMON: I don't certainly want to give away the play or the plot or the ending. But I do want to stipulate I found the ending on its way to being happy.
SIMON: It raises the question - and I ask you as a scientist and a writer - is love chemistry, or is it alchemy?
WANG: I think it's both. Right? Alchemy is having something and turning it into something new. Right? This is the - the hot word in science right now is synergy - right? - taking two parts and making it work together. Sometimes when they come together, it's better than each individual thing, right? That is part of love. But a lot of love is also just chemistry - neurons firing, biological. I have friends who are very bio-driven. And they would probably say love is more science-based, right? But deep down, I think they know that a lot of love is hard to explain, and that is alchemy.
Weike Wang - her new novel "Chemistry" - thanks so much for being with us.
WANG: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEMISTRY")
SEMISONIC: (Singing) It's all about chemistry, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, oh. It's all about chemistry. It's all about chemistry, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, oh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.