‘Little Gods,’ big distances

May 14, 2020, 11:19 p.m.

On the morning of June 4, 1989, a man and a pregnant woman arrive at a Beijing hospital. Flash forward to nightfall: The woman has given birth to a girl, and the man has disappeared. The woman is Su Lan, a brilliant physicist, and for much of the novel, she is dead, inhabiting only the memories and anxieties of those who knew her.

Released last January, Meng Jin’s debut novel “Little Gods” shifts back and forth through time — from a high school in Hangzhou, where Su Lan first met her husband Li Yongzong, to Shanghai, where the couple lived, to America, where Su Lan raised her daughter Liya, to the present day, when Liya travels China in search of answers to her mother’s past. It is strange, for a character so central to the novel, that Su Lan is so thoroughly veiled by the narrative: Her life is recounted by a rotating cast of characters — her daughter, her ex-husband, her neighbor in Shanghai — but never by Su Lan herself. Even the way that she is addressed by the narrative is stiff and unfamiliar — full name only, last name Su and first name Lan.

“Little Gods” begins with the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and ends nearly 20 years later, though perhaps it is more accurate to say that Su Lan’s story ends with the massacre, and that everything thereafter is just a prolongment of that ending.

If June 4, 1989, is truly where Su Lan’s narrative begins, then “Little Gods” is a novel enraptured by ghosts. Twenty years after Su Lan gave birth to Liya alone in Beijing, Su Lan abruptly passes away, and Liya returns to Shanghai and Beijing to hunt down the vestiges of her mother’s life. Yongzong, who left his wife on the day of Liya’s birth, now has a new wife and a new daughter. On some arbitrary day, Yongzong thinks he sees a young version of Su Lan out the window. As the reader, we think he sees Liya, though we don’t know for sure. On some arbitrary day, Liya stands outside an apartment complex and sees a man who looks like her father emerge with a young child, though no one in the novel can confirm this with any certainty. In the end, Yongzong and Liya never exchange a single word of conversation, despite Liya’s active search for her father.

Every part of Liya’s journey through China is haunted by her mother: an empty apartment in Shanghai with her parents’ portrait, a collection of letters exchanged by Su Lan and her high school classmate. Every person who encounters Liya is struck, first, by how much she looks like Su Lan. Zhu Wen, Su Lan’s former neighbor in Shanghai, initially believes Liya to be Su Lan’s ghost and, from her perspective, every word that Liya speaks is colored with the brittleness and indifference of her deceased mother. And perhaps, if we begin on June 4, 1989, Liya is nothing more than a vestige of her mother to all who knew her.

But if June 4, 1989, is the true ending of Su Lan’s story, then “Little Gods” is a story about time and the miraculous ways that we learn to defy it. 

“Do you believe in time?” Su Lan asks a nurse upon the birth of her daughter and the abandonment of her husband. “Do you believe … that the past is gone and the future does not yet exist?” 

When the nurse answers affirmatively, Su Lan screams. The nurse feels, distinctly, “Today, Su Lan begins to die.” The novel then rewinds to a high school in Hangzhou, where Yongzong — wealthy, arrogant, first in class — is surpassed in the gaokao college examination by Su Lan — poor, rural, anonymous. Yongzong recounts to the reader his encounters with Su Lan in Beijing, and later, when they marry, abruptly and indifferently. 

This period of Su Lan’s life is revealed to the reader only through Liya’s conversations with Zhang Bo, a mutual friend of Yongzong and Su Lan, in the present day. In fact, it is in this reversal of time only that we see Su Lan’s character in the clearest light. “Maybe I’m the kind of woman who deserves to be with dirt like you,” Su Lan says to Yongzong — how their marriage began. As the reader, we never directly see the way — the exact, precise way — that their marriage ends; there are only clues from Zhu Wen’s perspective as she witnesses their escalating arguments in the weeks leading up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or Yongzong’s recollection of the way he left his wife in Beijing.

Even by the end of the novel, I’m not sure I’d want to know Su Lan if I came across her on the street. I’m not sure she’d want to know me, either — if she would care about her anonymity, if she would be at all frightened by it. Jin’s characters are not convinced of their own importance in the grand scheme of the novel. There is nothing grandiose or magnificent about Su Lan, except perhaps that she could, conceivably, be someone that I might walk past on some anonymous street, someone I might recognize but not acknowledge.

Regardless of where “Little Gods” truly ends or begins, the novel closes on two parallel trajectories: one to the past, and one to the future. In the past, Liya arrives at her mother’s birthplace in Dongyang and meets her grandmother for the first time. Her grandmother immediately recognizes Liya as an image of Su Lan, and together, they light incense for Su Lan. In the future, Su Lan’s ashes are stolen from Liya by a thief. Su Lan’s remains — not only the ashes but a collection of her letters and photographs — end up in a landfill, a fact that no one in the narrative seems to realize. 

There is very little that is tragic about this final resting place: “Little Gods” is a novel that is blunt with both its grief and its hope. Jin’s novel ends without sentimentality, save for Liya’s kind, tender optimism. On the plane ride back to America, Liya imagines flying with her mother to America for the first time, and listening to Su Lan speculate about time:

“Imagine two people starting at the same point in space-time, flying around this new sphere, in opposite directions: one travels in the direction of the future, the other in the direction of the past. Just like the people who circle the earth, these travelers will eventually collide.”

And just like that, “Little Gods” leaves us with Liya’s miraculous, impossible fiction of a beginning.

Contact Lily Zhou at lilyzhou ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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