Weike Wang’s Chemistry and Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character
Weike Wang’s breakthrough 2017 novel Chemistry is centered on a female protagonist who has dedicated her life, up until now, to science. She is a chemistry student and doctoral candidate who has been an academic her entire life; she doesn’t quite know how to live without the confines of an intellectual existence where research and study are the main objectives. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants who have dedicated their lives to hard work, mathematics and science, our protagonist (who remains nameless throughout the novel) begins to crack under the pressure of such high standards. She literally smashes beakers in the chemistry lab where she works: this is the point after which she leaves school (but never confesses to her parents that she’s given up life as a burgeoning brilliant chemist).
It is her family and cultural heritage that shapes a lot of Wang’s protagonist’s guilt. She cannot lose the respect and pride of her parents by admitting that she may not be a gifted scientist. To admit that she feels out to sea and has quit school is almost too much for her to fathom; she simply cannot accept that everything she worked so hard for will be lost. These fears cause more insecurity, a little too much drinking, and a stint in therapy. Her parents do not believe in the benefits of seeing a therapist; this sort of treatment and lifestyle is simply not a part of their world or understanding. The stifling cultural background that has plagued the protagonist in Chemistry is similar in ways to Idha’s in Deepti Kapoor’s 2015 novel A Bad Character.
Although Wang’s novel is about a young Chinese-American woman in search of herself, it definitely mirrors Kapoor’s work in that it examines another young woman who is trying to find her identity. Kapoor’s novel is about Idha who, upon losing her mother, is sent away to live with an aunt in New Delhi by her absentee father. Idha falls in love with a man a few years her senior and discovers a whole new way of living in an India she never knew existed. After discovering the grittier undertones of humanity and witnessing alternative, less comfortable ways of living for the first time, Idha must confront who she is and, in the end, is left with an uncertain future that holds endless possibilities.
What is really being examined in these novels is a simple question of cause and effect: what occurs after loss? After inevitably finding oneself alone, specifically without a lover, what happens? In the case of Wang’s novel, when her boyfriend leaves to pursue a career in chemistry, the protagonist is left to care for herself while working as a tutor, spending time with her one and only close friend, and thinking about her childhood as well as her place in society as a former chemist and daughter of stoic Chinese parents. This is where the change of consciousness happens to the young women in both novels. In the case of Kapoor’s novel, Idha is left without a male counterpart when he is killed in a traffic accident. After this, she acts out by seeking companionship with random men (including an incident where she is paid for sex).
Kapoor deals a lot more with extremes than Wang, especially when it comes to sexuality and drugs: there are LSD trips where Idha sees her lover shapeshift and then where she watches Shiva and Parvati—the Hindu god and goddess couple who made love for centuries— dance in the sky. There are revelations such as these in both novels where the two women discover emotional truths: Wang’s protagonist must come to grips with the fact that she cannot truly love her boyfriend (or any man for that matter) until she loves and understands herself. Kapoor’s Idha becomes less sheltered and sexually liberated through the prowess of a partner.
The protagonist in Chemistry is impeccably bright when it comes to solving theorems but, when it comes to life, she’s at a loss as she doesn’t have a formula to follow. Her boyfriend, Eric has proposed marriage but she hasn’t been able to accept. It’s ironic that the novel is called Chemistry when the only love story that’s discussed undoubtedly lacks just that: there is no spark between these two characters. There’s certainly no palpable carnal chemistry (or at least any that is remarked upon); our protagonist is too caught up in talking about minerals and the periodic table to contemplate the nature of romantic harmony. The fact that she’s a young woman in a questionable relationship where sex seems unimportant makes it obvious that there’s no real compatibility. There is a scene where the protagonist and her boyfriend must shut their dog in the bathroom for privacy in order to sleep together. This is a somewhat comical, realistic situation where there is something literally blocking them from being together naturally. Wang doesn’t address this directly but, as a reader, it’s all too clear that she is subtly talking about the lack of a physical connection and how stifling that can be, especially when the question of marriage is on the table.
While Idha in A Bad Character has to deal with the landscape of India—complete with its debilitating heat, melting tarmacs and intense pollution—the young woman in Chemistry lives in Boston and is afraid that she’s forgetting a lot of what she knew of China (having moved to the United States at the age of five). Kapoor’s A Bad Character is more outrageous than Chemistry: the prose isn’t as minimal and the actions verge on the dramatic while Wang is very controlled in her writing (very much like a skilled scientist). Wang’s writing is, as aforementioned, decidedly minimal. While I was reading Chemistry, I felt like she must have really loved Hemingway in college or at least studied Normal Mailer’s technique in The Executioner’s Song.
The novels are very similar in the way that matters most: they both deal with characters who undergo inner change. While Kapoor deals with sexual awakening and obsession, Wang examines a romantic relationship that is lukewarm. This is a very interesting observation as to how uncertainty affects sexuality and the capacity to love. Wang’s work reflects the notion that a lack of stability in the world results in a lack of enthusiasm for a lover. Her musings on love and sex as being things that require self-identification and acceptance are very important and apropos of the modern social construct.
Both characters are railing against what is expected of them. Wang’s protagonist has given up everything that once defined her while Idha is not living the stereotypical role of a privileged young Indian woman. In Wang’s case, the decision to keep the ending open and without much of a conclusion is, in its way, a perfect conclusion to her protagonist’s uncertainty about life. Sometimes the answer is simply that there is no clear and definite answer; there is no closure.
Kapoor decides to end A Bad Character with the same idea of possibility as Wang’s: that there’s an ambiguous future waiting formed on experience. Idha drives off into a new city at the end of the novel and is hopeful as she has matured into a woman who understands that the world doesn’t only exist within the confines of her aunt’s New Delhi apartment. With Chemistry, Wang’s protagonist finally decides, in the end, that maybe she’s capable of a platonic friendship with her former boyfriend, Eric. This may seem like a small step but it is progressive for a woman who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and had completely rejected the idea of love. Wang helps her readers remember that life is not a scientific problem and – no matter how logical one may be – is not solved so easily and sometimes not at all.
As Chemistry was recently hailed by the New York Times as an “anti-coming-of-age story,” I have to wonder whether this feels accurate. I don’t think that Wang’s tale is one of morality where the protagonist reaches any sort of easy answer or ending but she does come to a conclusion as she matures into womanhood. Whether it is a coming-of-age story or not, it’s very much one for the age in which we live where so much is uncertain. It seems like we’re getting fewer great “go find yourself” stories and more apathy, trepidation and ambivalence. It’s not that Wang’s Chemistry doesn’t conclude with some sort of lesson, it’s simply that the lesson (or lack thereof) is not straight-forward or formulaic. The story veers off into an ambiguous ending that juxtaposes Wang’s clear and concise style of writing. I’m actually relieved that Wang’s novel explores the life of a young woman without fixing and explaining everything. Her message that it is normal—and pretty much expected—to not have it all figured out is one in which I (and certainly most people out there) can relate and find comfort.