Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere”

October 29th, 2017  |  Published in October 2017

Celeste Ng’s new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is the worst, most offensive novel I’ve read in a very, very long time.  Much praised for her earlier novels, Ng, one would have hoped, continue to show her growing promise as a writer, but Little Fires Everywhere is little more than a revenge fantasy  novel on the author’s part.  And Ng cynically works into this novel racial hatreds, which she both misinterprets and stokes with a certain obvious glee.  The novel’s political correctness is one of its worst features.  And Ng’s confusion of race and gender, and her cookie-cutter white families, simply move stereotypes around.

Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a liberal bastion outside of Cleveland, one of America’s first planned communities.  Its rules and regulations have helped this community,  since l912, to remain viable and beautiful, and the community has some of the best public schools in America, of which Ng is an example, if an ironic one.  It’s clear that Ng hated Shaker Heights, hated the “in ” crowds of teenagers found all over American high schools, public or private or parochial.  It’s adolescence she is attacking, in a way, but she chooses to find little but hypocrisy in Shaker Heights’ liberalism, in its carefully planned streets and roads and train stations, community centers, schools and the like.  In today’s language, Ng (who went to Harvard after graduating from a high school in Shaker Heights: no privilege there, we must assume), gives us two families, from opposite sides of the socio-economic range in that suburb, the Richardsons, two parents and four children, and the Warrens, Mia and her daughter Pearl, who rent an apartment from the Richardsons.

Ng’s plot involves increasing interactions, on the up and up and on the down and down, between and amongst these two families.  And she makes the Richardsons as cookie cutter upper middle white class hypocrites as she can, as a sophomore in high school well might: that’s the emotional intelligence of the novel.  The Richardsons are entitled, their children spoiled and selfish people who routinely and casually use other people–particularly those less favored by fortune, such as Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl. Of course, Ng makes Mia Warren an artist, a photographer, and we know that Ng will always see the superiority of this Asian woman living on the low with her adored daughter–it’s that same sophomoric sense of time and place Ng is so bad at. And Ng plays on old Asian stereotypes in the deal:  the mysterious Mia Warren comes across often as “The Wily Oriental” of yore.  (Ng carefully has the Richardson’s oldest daughter, Lexie, have an Asian-American best friend and an African-American, high achieving boyfriend, so the reader will possibly believe in some of the Richardsons’ liberalism: this trope does not work).

Early in the novel, Mrs. Richardson awakens to her house burning down, and three of her children arrive in (of course) their own cars (one bicycle). No one has the slightest affect from this tragedy; it’s routine for such spoiled people, Ng implies; this early incident in the novel began to lose me right away (the fourth daughter, the youngest, is the family rebel–she must be about a sophomore in high school, and perhaps a version of Ng herself at that age).  All the Richardsons casually assume that this daughter has set the fire, but then they get bored.  Ng does allow one Richardson son and the youngest daughter to have progressive, as opposed to “liberal”, leanings, which , in Ng’s world, means rebels, of course, and they will rather fall in love with Mia and her daughter Pearl, the quintessential rebels in Ng’s super-sheltered world (Shaker Heights; Harvard; The University of Michigan).

Ng also has a bizarre obsession with babies, pregnancies, about biological mothers versus adoptive parents. An entire long–and frequently boring–subplot of this novel involves another white , cookie cutter , affluent couple adopting a Chinese baby, who’d been left at a fire station, abandoned there by her mother, who decides, with help from Mia Warren, to get her baby back: this part seems courtesy of a cross between old soap operas and the trendy politically correct notion that only parents of the same racial background should dare to raise a child of a different background. Ng is highly manipulative as she presents this part of her narrative, playing on the sympathies of what are currently known as “progressives” for such alleged certainties (and if ever there’s been a group in America with the maximum of smug self-righteousness, it’s the aforementioned politically correct progressives).  Suffice it to say that Mrs. Richardson, a low level reporter for the Shaker Heights paper, turns sleuthing investigative reporter (Ng presumes that all such privileged whites have contacts everywhere to help them), finding secrets about Mia that fill Ng’s simplistic plot relevant , and allow the reader to self-righteously hate Mrs. Richardson more).  And the reader is to remain awestruck at the talent Mia is alleged to have as a photographer, suggesting that artists always have higher standards than the rest of the world, and their close to the vest living standards part of their rebellion against, say, Shaker Heights.

One detail I particularly remember from a novel I normally would not have finished (I did so to review the novel, only): the Richardsons have one son who’s a jock, and Ng allows that even his dreams were “banal”.  Really.

The plot becomes extremely predictable; all one has to do is loosely be aware of the rulebook of contemporary progressive political correctness, with its extreme emphasis on white privilege, to know what’s coming and who’ll “win”, as winning and losing are very much the way high school sophomores perceive the world.

Any work of art may (or may not) contain cathartic elements, and one certainly hopes that Celeste Ng has gotten her hatred for white upper middle class people (as she becomes an Asian-American version of same in real life) out of her system with this tiresome, melodramatic novel, whose characters are poorly delineated, whose coincidences are beyond credulity, and whose hatred is as tiresome as the political battles and climate in which this novel was written.  One hopes that Ng will find better territory to write about if she’s able to mature a bit, as she does write admirably.  She just has to find something to write about , without hiding behind gender and race and class, which she’s not very good at elucidating through this novel.

–Daniel Brown

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