Celeste Ng (2017) Little Fires Everywhere


Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere was published in 2017 to critical acclaim and is still a number one bestseller in Amazon in 2020. It terms of book sales, the author has produced the literary equivalent of Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell. Being a writer that never writes much now, I thought I’d take a look. It’s a page turner — the end begins at the beginning. I liked it. The review should end here with recognition of that neat trick.

 One I’ve used myself, but as George Bernard Shaw famously said, (adlibbed) writers that can’t write, teach, and teachers that can’t teach, write review.

People that can’t write often ask people that read, what was the book about? The answers pretty simple. Rich man/Poor man, or, in this case, women. I might as well talk about themes.  Class and race. These are biggies in American politics. These are biggies in any politics. Here we have the affluent, white,  Elena Richardson, she’s a local reporter and her husband is a lawyer that works in nearby New York. He comes home to Shaker Heights, where his wife and four beautiful children reside.

Talking Heads, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHatn3_UxEU

Shaker Heights is somewhere we all know, a place where a former Vice President in the late nineteen century moved to get away from the stench of the urban poor. Houses are solid and well maintained and everything runs on rails. Elena Richardson is a third generation Shaker Heighter. They have not one house, but also two units. She admits she doesn’t really need the money, but likes to rent them out the right kind of people. Not charity, exactly. But Mr Yang, whom she rents to in Winslow Road (Down) is suitably grateful.

Here’s the hook to draw readers in:

‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer, how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and emotional to discuss.’

Interrogate the text is a standard cry of creative-writing teachers. Interrogate The American Dream with the subtext Sidonie-Gabrielle Collete’s Gigi, ‘The bustling lives of people with nothing to do’. And remember how the rich are always telling us how incredibly busy they are. The reader is here left with a question, whodunnit, but the answer is in the text: Isabelle. In a book over 300 pages long in which Isabelle or Izzy doesn’t appear until about page 50, the reader suspects something more is going on.

In successful novels, one book becomes many books. George Bernard Shaw’s famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ has an Inspector visiting a family after a tragic accident, or suicide that might have been murder.   Here we have Mia Warren, an artist and photographer with her daughter Pearl, arriving in a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle and renting half a house in Shaker Falls from Elena Richardson. Shaw’s dictum ‘That those that can’t change their mind, can’t change anything,’ is the kind of mantra, Mrs. Richardson lives by.

If you play by the rules, you’ll get your just reward is her firm belief, but she is a bit miffed that Mia isn’t properly grateful for the chance she’s been given for a better life. And she’s offended, although she doesn’t show it, that Mia won’t sell her one of her photographs because Mrs Richardson wants to help and she’s a struggling artist. She does shitty jobs to get by, her art is her life. Mrs Richardson can’t imagine what a shitty job feels like, but she wants to do the right thing and gives her a job as housekeeper in her home.

Mia is the ying to Mrs Richarson’s yang. Mia doesn’t play safe. She and her daughter’s possessions can fit snugly in the Beetle and when the time is right to move on, they do, pulled by the necessity of creating something new and rich. Mia’s life is her art, a living embodiment of Shaw’s fellow Irishman’s dictum: Art for Art sake.

There’s lots of doubling in Little Fires Everywhere. When you start making connections they burn through you. Mia and Elena. But also Pearl and Izzy. Moody (look at the name, remember what that means to be fifteen and in love) falls for Pearl (listen to her name, she’s lustrous). He’s lustrous too, but a virgin. They both are, he falls for her hard. Up close teenage life is always Romeo and Juliet. They’re best buddies and that gives Pearl entry into a kind of life she could only imagine, the kind of life she could get used to as she becomes a part of the Richardson household, part of the Richardson family. Pearl is doubled by Izzy, the black sheep of the family that moves in the other direction, helping Mia with her photography, idolising her and imagining what it would be like to have Mia and not Elena as her mother. She’d be the cuckoo in Mia’s nest. Pearl the cuckoo in the Richardson nest. But being like a daughter is not the same as being a daughter.

‘Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,’ as Mia said.

‘You look nice,’ said Trip to Pearl when they’re hanging out in the living room.

Trip is brainless but beautiful, girls in Shaker Heights—and pretty much everywhere they go—fall all over him, admitted Mrs Richardson to herself. She could imagine Pearl falling for Trip, but not the other way about.

‘She always looks nice,’ snapped Moody.

Lexie, the eldest of the Richardson children is eighteen and about to graduate and go to Yale. She’s queen bee at school. A bit like her brother. But she has a steady black boyfriend. You know what’s going to happen and it does, in the high-school, coming-of-age drama. Then we have the doubling of Lexie with Pearl, wearing her clothes and feel more Lexie and Lexie wearing Pearl’s grungy T-shirt and feeling more loved by Pia.

Most novice writers are asked a simple question to determine point of view. Whose story is this? An omniscient point of view is used here in the stories of many lives. For example, even Mr Yang, who lives below Mia and Pearl as a bystander also gets to tell his backstory. This shouldn’t work, but an artist putting a collage together can make one vison of many pictures. Some of the writing is great, which pushes Little Fires into the literary genre.   

For example, Moody’s first vision of Pearl, taken from his point of view, when he parks his bike and looks across at the new tenants moving in.

‘He saw a slender girl in a long crinkly skirt and a long loose T-shirt, with a message he couldn’t quite read. Her hair was long and curly and hung in a thick braid down her neck and gave the impression of straining to burst free. She had laid the headboard down flat near the flowerbeds that bordered the house, with the side rails below it and the slats to either side in neat rows, like ribs. It was as if the bed had drawn in a deep breath and then gracefully flattened itself into the grass.’

The last line, in particular, raises Ng’s writing to poetic realms of resonance. On the rare occasions she falls into cliché it can be overlooked. Backstories add to plot. Pia, for example, doubles with a fellow worker May Ling Chow in having a baby that has no real father. Pia’s backstory of acting as a surrogate mother for a rich couple is more akin to Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, with Pia a doppelganger double for a New York matron unable to conceive. This in turn doubles with Mrs Richardson’s best friend, Linda McCullough (class of ’71) also having miscarriage after miscarriage and remaining childless until finally she’s given a baby to adopt, one that’s been found on the doorstep of a fire station. It’s a Chinese baby, it’s May Ling Chow’s baby, and she wants it back. But as an immigrant worker with no money and no connections she has little rights.

Race rather than class rears its head. But they’re not mutually exclusive. Race and class double up against each other and reveals hidden motives as characters confront their hidden prejudices. Little Fires interrogates what it means to be poor white, poor Chinese and what happens when choices need to be made. The Wisdom of Solomon is invoked. Often that’s not enough for a good story in our crazy world. You end up is T.S Eliot territory:

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Read on.   

S.E Hinton (2000 [1967]) The Outsiders

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It’s almost fifty years since The Outsiders was published. ‘The Original Teenage Rebel Story’ proclaims the tag on the cover. I’m sure William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had the same banner headline, but in yeh olde worlde English. Hinton was only seventeen when she wrote it. And like fourteen-year old  Ponyboy, the first-person narrator, you can imagine her trying to impress her English teacher and scrape a better grade by turning a suggested five page exercise into a 218 pages of prose and a coming-of-age story that shows how American society is prejudiced against the poor and it’s rules and regulations favour the rich. A* for effort Ms Hilton.

Ponyboy is a ‘greaser’, his hair is ‘longer than a lot of boys. Most greasers ‘rarely bother to get a haircut’ and the grease their hair. East side is where the greasers live and hang out. ‘Greasers are almost like hoods, we steal things and drive old souped up cars’.  The Socs go to the same school but live on the West side and drive ‘tuff’ cars and wear ‘tuff’ clothes such as blue madrass shirts, but don’t have a tough life. Ponyboy is philosophical about the class differences, ‘I’m not saying that either Socs or greasers are better; that’s just the way things are’. Greasers pride themselves on how tuff and tough they are and stick together. And Socs do the same. When they meet in a rumble it’s the greasers that cop the blame, but they won’t back down, not for anybody.

Plotting is a big hitter. Bob the bully Soc, for example who busted up Johnny, the greaser, early in the narrative later pays a high price. Johnny knives and accidentally kills him trying to protect Ponyboy who’s being beaten up and half drowned,  but Johnny finds redemption by breaking his back, being badly burned and setting the world to rights, before melodramatically dying  saving some wee boys that are trapped in a derelict church that is burning down around their heads. In turn that drives a fellow greaser, super tuff Dally who looked out for little Johnny, over the edge.  Death by cop, which has a familiar ring to it.

Ponyboy explains it to himself and to the reader in a simple way. ‘Dally Watson wanted to be dead and he always got what he wanted.’

There are no blacks in the novel and it’s a male world with girls adding little more than decoration. It’s family that counts most. And with his mum and dad killed in an autowreck, Ponyboy acknowledges how hard it is for Darry, his twenty-year old brother, who works two jobs, to keep the family together. Happy-go-lucky Soda, who is sixteen, has dropped out of school, but is happy working in a garage. He  adds to a choir of voices that demand something different from Ponyboy. Twobit, one of their friends, for example, acknowledges that to be a greaser demands that ‘you get tough and you don’t get hurt’. But  for Ponyboy this translates differently. He demands that he get on and get out, give them something to be proud of. ‘Get smart and nothing can touch you.’

Hinton’s veiled coda is education is the route out of the greaser ghetto. That truth did hold true at that time, but like the idea that Bob the bully’s parents loved him too much and let him away with too much and if they’d loved him less and thrashed him more he wouldn’t have turned out the way he was and wouldn’t have died—well, these are ideas of a certain epoch. The American dream of working hard and playing hard and the world playing fair with you, died right there and then, at the cusp end of the sixties. Since then the tuffs are The Socs of society who have pretty much wiped the floor with the greasers in society. A sad but simple truth a rule for the rich and a rule for the poor, but as Ponyboy knows who rules and we don’t want sympathy, we just want to get even.

As Randy explains. ‘You can’t win, even if you whip up. You’ll still be where you were before – at the bottom’.

Yep, that sounds about right. Roll on super-tuff Reagan and Soc it to the rest of us greaser chumps.