Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, 2014)

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?

I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).

As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:

That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story

I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.

Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.

For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.

Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.

I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.

Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.

Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.

I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.

I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.

Pushcart 2012: Celeste Ng, “Girls, At Play” from Bellevue Literary Review Fall 2010

No talking other than hello. Don’t tell anyone if you hate it, if his tongue feels like a dead fish in your mouth, if his hands leave snail-trails of sweat down your sides. No talking with the boys outside of the game. No talking about it afterwards, no laughing, no anything, even if it’s just the three of us. Pretend it never happened. Rub the dent on your arm, the red welt where the bracelet snapped and split, until it goes away.

When I was about 11, I visited family in New York during the World’s Fair and brought home a tiny diorama as a souvenir for my brother: it was wonderful, a little wooden box with a photo – in color! – of the Statue of Liberty in the background and a landscape of trees and boulders and grass in the foreground, all protected by a pane of glass that slipped in as the lid. At that time I had no idea of the value of things, and was amazed this treasure was within my quarter-a-week-allowance budget. My brother taught me the value of critique when he sneered, “It’s just a postcard in a picture frame.”

That’s how it is with this story. I was, corny as it sounds, enrapt, amazed that words could capture this tale of pubescent passage so perfectly. I was happy to recognize the collective “we” voice (I’m finally getting it). I ached for Grace, remembered being her in many ways, cheered for Angie, Carol and Mandy when they went right, wept for them when they, for the second time, threw away their childhood and lost their Grace. I loved this story.

And now I’m just waiting for someone to come along and tell me the voice is gimmicky and there are some events that don’t quite seem inevitable and the name Grace is overused, forced into sentences blatantly designed for that name, that without the name Grace, the whole story falls apart.

Hey: Without a white whale, Moby-Dick is just a long, boring novel about blubber and harpoons.

This is a gorgeous story (available online), creating a world that’s horrifying and real. A trio of eighth graders, Angie, Carol, and Mandy, wear jelly bracelets on their wrists in various colors indicating which sexual acts they’ll perform. At recess, they stand by the flagpole (what a perfect place to stand) and boys come over and snap off a bracelet. The girl so chosen goes with the boy to the bleachers and makes good on the bracelet’s promise, which can be anything from a kiss to intercourse. There are rules, listed in the quote above. That’s the game they play.

This is how we are when Grace moves to town.

You’ll notice two things right off the bat: the “Stranger Comes To Town” standard-plot, and the importance of using the name Grace, as opposed to, oh, Sandra or Francine or even Mary. “Grace” is one of those words with so many meanings, such evocative power, it’s almost a novel in itself.

“Grace,” we repeat. “Grace.” Awe like the sound of it, the round single syllable, like a polished metal bead. A simple name, a sweet name. A name not yet corrupted into a diminutive. We wonder, for a moment, if with Grace we can be Angela, Caroline, Amanda.

Yes, they can. Grace is a year younger, and, let’s face it, lame. She wears oversized t-shirts bearing ecological cartoons. Her dad’s in the military, so she’s never lived in one place more than six months; her mom’s dead, and it’s pretty apparent her dad pays little attention to Grace, because she’s a very odd duck.

But these three girls gravitate to her. That’s a little strange, actually. She’s the kind of girl who would end up being the target of some serious bullying in most stories. But here, they grab onto her like a life raft. They let her pull them back from the flagpole into the lifeboat of childhood again.

Weeks pass and we don’t go near the flagpole. At recess we see the boys out of the corner of our eyes. Some of them move on to other things, football, kick,ball, skateboarding. But some keep on, as out of habit, moving towards the flagpole like a fog and then dissipating, disappointed. After a while we forget to even watch them. We’re busy, with Grace, because she hardly knows anything at all.

The girls go to Grace’s house and play Monopoly and Candyland and Funny Bone. They teach her about the best seats in movie theatres and cherry Cokes and eyelash wishes, “the most sacred of wishes, a tiny curl bearing your most secret hopes.” Grace asks if she can wish for the same thing twice, and the trio is amazed, because they have such an endless list of things to wish for, they never considered running out: “We are awed to be in the presence of someone who wants so little”

Things change, of course. It’s a story, and in a story, things change, and in life, things change. Twelve-year-old girls, even lame ones, grow up. She wants to go see an R-rated movie, and they show her how to sneak in. They’re playing dress-up with Grace’s old Halloween costumes, and she puts on their clothes, a lace top and denim miniskirt and platform shoes. It’s probably as strange a getup for her as the witch’s hat is for them. She dresses differently after that. And she starts wearing make-up, except it isn’t real make-up, it’s watercolor paint because she doesn’t have make-up (I used colored pencils and Magic Markers, with equally disastrous results). The girls teach her how to shoplift a small stash of cosmetics.

Sometimes we look at her, at this new creature with darkened eyes and sleek clothing, who keeps her head up in the hallways, who sees people look at her and bats her eyes and smiles. At first she looks like a stranger. But there’s something familiar about her….She’s still Grace, we remind ourselves. We cling to the simple things, the Candyland, to milkshakes, to eyelash wishes. She’s still our Grace.

Grace hears about the game from another classmate, and asks the girls about it. They won’t tell her. She snubs them for eight days (and I’d love to speculate on why eight days – the day after God rested after creation, bris bat, luck, something, but that would probably be over-reading), then shows up, worried she’s dying: that staple coming-of-age scene, another clueless girl’s first period. I have a problem with this, because no matter how sheltered she is, she’s got to have seen ads and products and heard conversations, and didn’t she ever attend a health class? I also find it unnecessary to the story. I’m sure it’s something to do with innocence, but it would be enough, I think, for her to need the girls’ help with her first period, without the dubious element of shock, to serve as fulcrum for what happens next:

She still wants to know about the game. Now more than ever.

We know, now, that we can keep nothing from her, that we will have to teach her everything we know. The girl in front of us doesn’t even look like our Grace anymore….She looks just like us except fo her bare wrist. We want to slap her, to tell her she’s ungrateful.

They teach her the game. It’s a brutal scene equivalent to rape, and that’s even before they leave her standing alone at the flagpole, her wrists decorated with bracelets of all colors, the boys “lean and hungry” after “a long, lonely winter.”

So go ahead, tell me all the flaws. It’s still a gorgeous story, a perfect read even as I was ticking off flaws in my head, because it generated a power and a beauty of language and depth of empathy that drew me along, much as the power between boys and girls, between the safety and fun of childhood and the allure of adulthood, between the game and Grace. It’s a lot more than a postcard in box. It’s a diorama.