Celeste Ng's latest work is concerned with polarization — even the central character, Noah/Bird, has two names — and in its dystopian setting, in the wake of what is known as "the Crisis," fear has saturated public life. The advent of PACT — "the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act" — instills an official atmosphere of paranoia, racism and repression; resistance is met swiftly with consequence. People are "removed" as casually as books; when Bird visits the library, he sees "gaps in the rows like missing teeth."
When he tries to look up his long-absent mother, the poet Margaret Miu, he receives the message "No results" — a meaningful result, in spite of itself. The anti-PACT movement invokes a phrase from one of Margaret's poems — the titular "missing hearts." When Margaret reaches out to her son in the form of a drawing, Bird's desire to reconnect with her is stronger than his fear of the mail-inspecting, book-banning authorities.
Bird's plight is complicated by his race — his mother is Chinese, and PACT is rife with racist doctrine — and by his father's dutiful adherence to PACT. His father, Ethan Gardner, a former academic — his professional trajectory is described as "linguistic professor to book shelver" — wants only to avoid trouble and to protect his son.
Ng's tone here is one of persistent alarm; the prose is as clear and straightforward as PACT rules, and as full of frightening subtext. The tension is inescapable; the prospect of being named an "internal enemy" is ever-present. Bird's journey, as he searches for Margaret, has a mythical quality.
The dystopian setting becomes richer with each detail — the imagery of the propaganda posters is especially good — and slowly, the peripheral characters develop more substance. When Bird sneaks into the stacks of the library where Ethan works, Ethan parrots all the approved rhetoric to the security officers who question them. By placing such ingratiating language in Ethan's mouth — "We're very grateful to folks like you who are protecting our security" — Ng makes it clear that the father speaks from fear, not from conviction.
Ng cites recent global events and technological advancements — security cameras, cellphones — to place the novel in a vaguely contemporary time. The Crisis begins as an economic matter; the response evolves into a sinister cultural movement.
When the narrator eventually names Cambridge as the city where Bird lives with Ethan, it seems as if concrete details are starting to leak accidentally; soon, details pour forth. When Bird and Margaret reunite, her first impulse is to tell him stories, to urge him to "promise to listen."
Margaret, revealing the sacrifice she has made so that Bird can stay with Ethan, commits herself to listening to the stories of other parents, longing for their children, after PACT dismantled their families. Ng offers abundant images of words being removed, covered, erased. Language and story, her new work suggests, cannot be taken for granted; stories must always be heard, always be told.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
Our Missing Hearts
By: Celeste Ng.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 335 pages, $29.
Event: Talking Volumes, 7 p.m. Oct. 26, $30-28. Tickets at https://www.mprevents.org/event/talking-volumes-with-celeste-ng/