“Catalysts make reactions go faster,” says the unnamed narrator, a burned-out Ph.D. candidate, in Weike Wang’s debut novel, “Chemistry.” “They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to is path.”

The catalyst in this electric novel is her boyfriend Eric’s marriage proposal. The indecision is all hers, for although she loves him and the life they’ve carved out together during their two years of co-working and cohabitation, she can’t seem to bring herself to give him a concrete answer.

The pros are plentiful. Eric, a fellow chemist, cooks, takes out the trash, cleans the house and walks their dog. And although there are no cons (at least none she can formally articulate), she can’t quite put her finger on the reason why she feels their formula as a couple won’t equal marital bliss.

Is it that she hasn’t told her traditional Chinese parents she’s been living with Eric for two years? Is it that she’s ashamed she’s only been able to publish one scientific paper en route to her Ph.D.? Is it that years of bearing witness to her parents’ tumultuous marriage has left her feeling too unmoored to commit? Or is it the crushing pressure she feels to complete her degree, when her father, who overcame a multitude of hardships to complete his doctorate, graduated after only three years?

“A proverb my father made up. To progress in life, you must always compare yourself with someone better and never with someone worse.”

At the lab, she reaches a literal breaking point. She smashes several glass beakers on the floor in front of her aghast colleagues and swiftly exits. In her characteristic deadpan voice, which tends to downplay and illuminate her psychology, she observes: “I felt invincible when smashing those beakers. But then I felt worse. It was unkind to make the beakers suffer on my behalf.”

As with Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” the ingenuity behind “Chemistry” stems from sparse, lucid prose that juxtaposes curious scientific facts alongside quirky musings. Wang, the winner of the Whiting and the PEN/Hemingway awards, is a visionary who, by boiling down the relationship at the heart of the novel to its most basic elements, has crafted a narrative that manages to be both restrained and explosive.

It is, ultimately, an elegant story of disorder, of experiments gone awry, of ultimately starting over. “It was once believed that heart cells could not regenerate, that once they died they could not be replaced,” the narrator ponders. “Now it is known that the heart can renew itself.”

 

Anjali Enjeti is Vice President of Membership for the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, the Georgia Review, the Atlantic, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and elsewhere.

Chemistry
By: Weike Wang.
Publisher: Vintage Contemporary, 211 pages, $16.
Event: 7 p.m. April 30, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.