“Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle” by Ellen Gilchrist

16May05

From Lin Tan’s simplified speech to the more formulaic “man meets woman, man and woman fall in love, man and woman live happily ever after” plot, “Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle” exists in that romantic realm of fairy tales.

Both of the main characters live in a romantic surreality. Lin Tan is a geneticist who works with fetuses, a time of a person’s life that everyone experiences yet no one remembers. Humans can observe the fetus’ experience in the womb but cannot recreate the experience or remember their experience. Therefore, the fetus’ time in the womb is magical, and Lin Tan describes his work with fetuses as magical or in rather magical terms. His practice of Zen meditation also elevates him beyond reality in a way.

At the place where her car had been, several pigeons flew down from a roof and began to peck at the sidewalk. Lin took that for a sign and went back into the hotel and sat in meditation for an hour, remembering the shape of the universe and the breathtaking order of the species. He imagined the spirit of Margaret and the forms of her ancestors back a hundred generations. Then he imagined Margaret in the womb and spoke to her in a dream on the day she was conceived.

From his position to which meditation lifts him, he feels as though he can communicate with Margaret in a meaningful way. Lin Tan is also captivated by poetry. He envies and respects Margaret for her father being a poet. Margaret also seems consumed by her father’s poetic world. She continually compares Lin Tan to her father and seems enchanted by him because of the connection.

Formation and development seems to be important in this story. Part of the attraction between Margaret and Lin Tan seems to stem from their interest in how things become. Lin Tan, as mentioned, studies fetuses and Margaret studies the development of language. She teaches first-graders because she is interested by their discovering how to form language on paper as words and then stringing the words into sentences. The fact that these similarities attract them to one another interests me because they meet over destruction. Margaret wanders to the bridge where she encounters Lin Tan because an acquaintance had committed suicide there recently.

I have not read any more of Gilchrist’s work, but from what I have read about her in critical texts, she likes romantically pairing characters from opposite backgrounds. Roy Hoffman notes in his review of Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle,

In previous works the white Southern woman, Protestant or Roman Catholic, who becomes involved with men of markedly different backgrounds usually writes her own prescription for failure.

However, in this story Margaret and Lin Tan’s relationship does not fail. As the title implies, “light can be both wave and particle”—people from two very different cultures still have something in common. Some unnamed element of human nature connects them. The ending of this story, with Margaret’s father challenging Lin Tan to a game of chess, suggests a number of possibilities for the future of these young lovers, as many as there are moves in a chess game.

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