Our Missing Hearts (Penguin Press 2022) by Celeste Ng
Reviewed by Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
Most of the familiar dystopias are set in some kind of post-apocalyptic future where the walls are covered with posters of a dictator or Big Brother. Sometimes supercomputers control everything. Sometimes people wear uniforms and stare into space.
In Aldous Huxley’s memorable Brave New World, a “World State” even controls reproduction through a scientifically-created caste system and discontent is managed through a hedonistic combination of drugs and sex. The logical conclusion is that dystopia is NOT NOW, and in a possible future, it will be somewhere else.
Celeste Ng’s new dystopian novel Our Missing Hearts , though wonderfully written and often mesmerizing, is not what I expected. It is actually set in the United States and in the here and now, for starters. There are no posters of a dictator and there is no mention of an evil supercomputer. There is nothing unrecognizable. The characters are similar to people I know. The physical world, even descriptions of the weather, are familiar. So, I began to wonder if this was truly a dystopia.
Then it occurred to me that familiarity was the key to my discomfort as well as the key to the effectiveness of the book. The constant distraction of “forever wars” with their unrelenting references to very powerful enemies who “threaten our way of life;” desperate attempts to control what young people are taught; extreme social and economic class divides; fear of outsiders (or immigrants) who also “threaten our way of life;” environmental devastation; and a loss of individuality. All of these familiar details had me asking: Might it be possible that we already live in a dystopia?
Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts is about language, in its many forms, more than it is about dictators and supercomputers. It is about the power of libraries and librarians. It is about the magic of dictionaries. It is about truth and lies; history and propaganda. Most movingly, it is about how poetry can fuel resistance and save a society.
Much of Ng’s story is centered around two children, a few adults, a string of libraries, and some disappeared poetry. Bird is 12 years old and lives with his father, who spends every night reading dictionaries because there are no longer books in the home. Bird’s mother, Margaret Miu, a Chinese-American poet, has disappeared. Bird’s friend Sadie is a 13-year-old running from place to place after being removed from her parents’ home. She often takes refuge in libraries and is admirably uncooperative with any authority figure. This leads her to being removed from her parents and “re-placed” again and again.
Any dystopia is bound to be a paranoid place. There is fear of people who think differently, fear of people who don’t look white, fear of an honest history, and a pervasive fear of books. There are people, thought to be “bad influences,” who disappear, as did the desaparecidos in the “dirty wars” of Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, and children who are separated from parents.
It does not take a leap of the imagination to see parallels with the contemporary United States. Arguments about what books can be used in schools and what parts of our history are allowed to be taught are always in the news. And we, in this country, unfortunately have a history of separating children from parents whether that be in those wretched Indian boarding schools or as a result of the Trump administration’s “family separation” policy at the border.
Without giving away the ending, a summary of the beginning of the book gives readers a clear idea what we’re in for: On the very first page an envelope arrives for Bird marked as having been inspected for your safety and passed on. The paper in the envelope is entirely covered with sketches of cats. Since there are no words, apparently, there are no messages. However paranoia is so ubiquitous that Bird actually wonders if he should burn the letter because it is obviously from his mother and she is a “person of Asian origin.”
As the story continues, Ng writes a great deal about “recent economic instability.” Likely describing the aftermath of the Great Recession or the economic results of the COVID pandemic, the author reveals that the economic troubles have led to an increase in xenophobia, an increase in charges of un-American activities, and the passage of the “Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act” (PACT).
As a result of PACT, signs begin to appear everywhere reminding people to be patriotic. Posters cover walls telling residents that United neighborhoods are peaceful neighborhoods. Predictably, Asian Americans became a primary focus of suspicion and surveillance. Authorities, of course, vigorously deny that PACT is about race. PACT, they say, “is about patriotism.” But in the streets, there are still random attacks against Asians, not unlike those that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic as sinophobia spread nearly as rapidly as the virus. “The man towering over her, kick, kick, kick, soft sickening thumps…” Ng writes, bringing the attacks to stomach-turning life with her descriptions.
Outside of the novel we live with the undeniable legacy of other pronouncements made by a former president who declared that migrants crossing the border with Mexico were “people that have lots of problems … they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and there are rapists.” It was that selfsame president who labeled COVID-19 “the China Virus.” The lesson both Ng and the Trump years have taught us is: Language can hurt—whether or not it is in books.
In Our Missing Hearts, parents act the same as any parents would, in what they believe to be their children’s interests. Bird’s father warns his son to come directly home after school. But kids are kids, so despite the warning Bird often stops in a library where he can wander the shelves and read. He eventually notices that books on history and politics are fast disappearing and the few remaining have titles like The China-Korean Axis and The Menace at Home.
Ever curious, Bird asks a librarian what has been done with all the missing books. But as he asks the question, he is thinking of a picture from his history class showing heaps of burning books. The librarian, seeming to intuit what he is thinking, quickly responds, “We don’t burn books here. This is America. Right?”
His mother’s poems, he realizes, have also been removed from the shelves. But poems have special characteristics. They have a capacity to be memorized, passed on, remembered. As such, Margaret Miu’s words haunt every part of this story. The title Our Missing Hearts, is a line taken from one of those poems and it eventually becomes an effective rallying cry for those seeking a more just and more honest society.
Inevitably, Bird embarks on an unlikely hero’s bus journey. Like Odysseus, he is confronted with obstacles, but in the end, he finds his mother and he discovers that she is living in somewhat mysterious circumstances.
Reunited, Margaret tries to explain to her son the events that led to everything falling apart and to her leaving. But when she attempts to explain the impact that a severe economic crisis can have on people, she quickly grasps that it is too much for a child to understand. It is as if she were trying to explain the meaning of fear to someone who has never been afraid. Then, she thinks of saying, “Imagine if everything you think is solid turns out to be smoke…” But she stops, knowing that it too, would be too much.
Nevertheless, the words she only imagines saying are important. “Everything solid turning to smoke” is likely a reference to an explanatory line from Karl Marx. And if Bird could not fully understand it, I like to think others can. That readers can.
The original line was written by Marx in 1848, a year filled with revolts and revolutions, all of which ended in disillusionment. In the midst of that crisis, Marx describes what is so difficult for many to comprehend. That, in the wake of crisis and confusion, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Of course, the poet and mother likely understood that Marxist theory would make little sense to her young son. After all, how can anyone explain to a child that a country supposedly based on freedom and equality has given way to chaos and scapegoating? How difficult would it be to explain the transformation of comfortable traditions into convenient lies?
As I finished the final pages, time seemed to stand still. I felt a real kinship with these characters who, in my mind, now seem to live apart from the book. In the end they make a collective decision meant to ensure that the past is not lost: they will continue collecting stories and, most importantly, they will find ways to share them. They refuse to let an honest history die. That gave me hope, not only in Our Missing Hearts, but in the clear message to all of its readers. History, it turns out, is not bunk as Henry Ford stupidly said. And, it seems, poetry is not a luxury, as Audre Lorde so presciently warned.