Book Review Jim Mamer Original

Celeste Ng’s Piercing Portrayal of the Dystopia in Which We Live

Reading “Our Missing Hearts” becomes an exercise in recognizing the many ways today’s America is already a nightmare.

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.


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Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher. He was honored as Social Science/History Teacher of the Year in 1992 by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). He was a Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984.

15 comments

  1. “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.”

    It never ceases to fascinate me how those in the Comfortable Class invariably reference events like these. In this case, doing so while totally ignoring what the book actually speaks to, which is the overwhelming power of so-called “child protective services” to snatch children from their families into a life of foster care that’s rarely as supervised as it should be while demanding birth parents overcome whatever obstacles led to that abduction on their own.

    I understand that for those insulated from the reality most of those outside the middle class live on a daily basis grasping just how authoritarian is the “social safety net” system they love to pat themselves on the back for, however inadequate. Even when the media finally break down and cover some horror story, like the Texas foster care system, the victims rarely include the parents of the abused kids because it’s automatically assumed they’re irresponsible or they wouldn’t have lost their kids in the first place.

    The facts are that CPS units are funded based on the number of cases they close, not the number of families they try to help. Employees are often, if not usually, upper-middle-class kids fresh out of college with degrees in sociology who have no clue what life is like for the people they’re sent out to critique and police. I had one tell me when I was barely getting by on welfare, that if I couldn’t manage to keep my apartment clean enough for their approval maybe I could hire someone to help me with it.

    Ms. Ng’s dystopia is only uncomfortable because those who spend their lives inside the bubble of Comfortable Class privilege maintain their equilibrium by ignoring what it’s really like to be poor and at the mercy of bureaucrats whose agencies’ rules are designed to keep people out, not help them out. I really must read her book to see if what I suspect is true. Meantime, maybe y’all should get outside that bubble and hang out with the poor people you keep insisting you care about.

    1. I think your points are valid. Thanks for making them. I hope you find the book valuable
      .

    2. Elizabeth:

      Thank-you for such a sharp, insightful commentary. I liked the term Comfortable Class, which perhaps can be used to describe the goal of modern life.

      I have experienced in small measure the way you describe your encounter with a welfare agency. The intent is to manage a social ill and keep it out of sight, to use govt money elsewhere, rather than heal society and create engaged, empathetic citizens. Poverty and the illnesses it creates can also be used as political currency, to divide by fear, to call for more investment in law and order.

  2. Thank you, Jim Mamer. Your essay is beautifully and sensitively written. It definitely would draw people to read Celeste Ng’s “Our Missing Hearts.” As an educator, you know too well that the attack on language, logic, knowledge, education, and books is central to the agenda of the fascistic, anti-democratic, civilization-destroying trends here in America and around the world. The above mentiond attacks are meant to destroy, disrupt, and prevent necessary public discourse; to make critical thinking and the ability to conceptualize alternatives nearly impossible; and to impede resistance. It’s always good to hear from people who see the world as it is and who say, “No, this will not do. We can do better.” It does my heart good. Thanks, again.

  3. Chris Hedges had a piece on this novel, so I read it. People are going to hate my take, but I found the book underwhelming, expecting it to be like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. The novel seemed to try so hard to be important, while for Atwood it appears effortless. I actually rolled my eyes at the climax, it was so predictable. I think it would be better with a hardback signed copy read in front of a fireplace with a cup of flavored coffee, getting into feelings. The Handmaid’s Tale still rings true. This book rings hollow to me.

  4. that USA is dystopia —sure the sky is blue….but how are americans different?

  5. This essay asks “Might it be possible that we already live in a dystopia?” The phrasing here reminds me that in the US democracy has for decades been nearing the edge of danger. Forty years ago Helen Caldicott spoke with stock phrases about the time left to “save the world” – the number of months until the next election. If Reagan wins in 1980 … if Reagan wins in 1984 … Danger’s horizon is endlessly pushed into the future. If Trump wins in 2016 … if Democrats lose the midterms …

    “Might it be possible that we already live in a dystopia?” tells a reader the writer is struggling to come to terms with the observed world.

    “poetry can fuel resistance and save a society”. How does this scale? What percentage of the population is engaging in reading and reciting poetry? Throughout my life, in the mid-Atlantic, New England, Midwest, Pacific Northwest, SF Bay Area, organizations concerned about the erosion of democracy have struggled with getting a few dozen people to meetings in metropolitan areas populated with millions. “Save a society” or preserve a handful of dissidents who survive in constant fear of persecution?

  6. I don’t understand the people who read a book like this, the PMC I guess. Hell, almost everyone I run into knows we live in a dystopia that can only be fixed with revolution, and you all are having a hard time believing that the US is corrupt and rotten to the core? Your heads are up your arses at such a dangerous time. WTF is wrong with you all?

  7. The quote by Marx is from Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto. I think it is helpful to include the rest of the paragraph which contains the quoted sentence, along with the short paragraph that follows it:

    “The bourgeoisie [i.e., the class of modern capitalists] cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. 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.

    The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. ”

    Reading this, in a 21st century age where many people positively worship change for its own sake, I find Marx’s words uncannily prophetic. But while Marx was optimistic about the prospects of a post-capitalist future, I am not so sanguine.

    The obsession for change and novelty and the abolition of all custom and tradition are leading toward belief in a virtual reality that is nothing more than smoke, while the real conditions of life deteriorate and the social relations of humans with their own kind disintegrate to the level of collisions between gaseous molecules, or of hard metal balls shaken in a can.

    Yes, I think we are already living in dystopia and it feels like vertigo. The task of writers now is to imagine the way from dystopia to social stability. Not static, but with a measure of equilibrium.

  8. “Reading “Our Missing Hearts” becomes an exercise in recognizing the many ways today’s America is already a nightmare. ”

    Would it not be easier just to walk outside with your eyes actually open?
    Would it not be easier just to actually see and recognize reality?

    Ah, Democrats, they have to read a book to have someone else tell them what they would see if they actually walked outside and experienced the real world that the Democrats have created for us all. The Democrats create a Hell and condemn all of us to live in it, and then they write a book giving us ‘exercises’ in experiencing their Hell. Life with the rich and privileged, isn’t it wonderful?

    1. The Democrats are world creators.
      Only the democrats, mind you.
      Not the commies.
      Or the terrorists.
      Or the aliens.
      Or the fake news.
      Or the Supreme Court.
      Or the Christian nuts.
      Gun nuts?
      Same thing?

      What party do the people you vote for, belong to?

  9. Filling my water bottles in Walmart in a suburb of Phoenix this morning, a 60 something shopping couple walked by. Man had a sweatshirt with the word ESSENTIAL over a print of an assault weapon and the woman had some words like PATRIOT printed over a US flag.

    I almost verbally engaged, but bit my tongue – Arizona is an open carry stand you ground state and you never know what goes through the “minds” of people who would wear such lies.

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