Celeste Ng Our missing hearts isn’t exactly a dystopian or alternate history, as many of the events depicted in his latest novel actually happened or are thinly disguised versions of real-life tragedies.
“The Crisis,” for example, is a global economic collapse allegedly caused by manipulation of the Chinese market, and is clearly a fictional substitute for the pandemic. Existential threats against certain individuals or groups—a common trope in dystopian novels—are already part of US history, such as slavery, discrimination against Asians, and forced assimilation of Native children. Other problems evoked in the novel persist: police brutality, racial violence and economic inequality.
Our missing hearts is grieving. But it’s also propelled by hope, less a grim prognosis of the future than an impassioned call for a full examination of the past.
In this sense, Ng’s story borrows an important element from dystopian fiction: the idea of the erasure of memory, imposed by a repressive regime and carried by individuals cut off from their cultural heritage.
The book begins in the media res, from the perspective of 12-year-old Bird Gardner. As befits his name, the boy embodies Emily Dickinson’s vision of hope as “the thing with the feathers – / Who perches in the soul – / And sings the melody without the words”. Bird carries, literally and figuratively, the “seed” of the novel – its narrative arc and its moral weight.
Like in a fairy tale, Bird must first embark on a harrowing quest to uncover the truth about his mother, Margaret Miu, an Asian American poet who apparently abandoned her family.
Bird’s best friend, Sadie, thinks Margaret is the leader of an underground resistance movement, which manifests itself in frequent and startling acts: intersections painted blood red; giant red hearts, made of threads and intertwined with ghostly dolls, dangling from trees in parks.
Bird’s father, Ethan, forbids his son to mention Margaret’s name to anyone. Subject to state supervision, Ethan and Bird must abide by the safe code of conduct prescribed by the PACT (The Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act).
Thanks to its homogeneous structure, Our missing hearts looks like a box of myths transforming into new, symbiotic ideas as they converge. Bird’s Quest, a bus trip from Cambridge, Mass., to New York, evokes the Greek myth of Orpheus, in which the hero must journey into the underworld to reunite with his beloved. It also echoes “The Boy Who Drew Cats”, a Japanese folk tale about a boy who, by drawing cats on the wall of a monster’s lair and “keeping the little one”, manages to kill the monster. , a giant rat.
Ng’s skillful juxtaposition of the myth of Orpheus (the eternal absence of a beloved transformed into art) and the Japanese myth of the cat (an artist’s triumph over evil) encapsulates the tragedy/hope duality in the heart of Our missing hearts. Moreover, its compelling storytelling “restricts to the small”, evoking finely drawn Asian American characters and dismantling their stereotypical depiction as conformists or lacking in emotional complexity.
The Chinese character of Margaret’s surname, Miu, contains the ideographic roots of “beast” and “domestic cat”. The more Bird learns about his mother, the more he realizes that Margaret is neither ideologically driven nor traditionally housebound – but someone has woken up to systemic injustice by bearing witness to her own suffering and from those of others.
The novel affirms Ng’s belief that aesthetic means can be effectively employed to resist oppression. For example, the author describes how the poet Anna Akhmatova memorized her poetry and passed it on orally to trusted friends to escape Stalin’s censorship.
Similarly, Margaret meticulously records stories told by parents whose children were taken from them as part of PACT. Performance art, as a form of non-violent protest, is another example of ‘respecting the small’. While this type of protest takes place in public, passers-by are touched in private, “forcing them to take note, [unsettling] days and weeks later, tying a knot in their chest.”
Ng suggests that these peaceful but empowering long-term measures could be more important and more profitable than mass gatherings that disrupt daily activities and compromise public safety.
Finally, while Ng’s novel represents a critique of late capitalist, culturally white America, its inspirations appear to be drawn from Václav Havel’s famous 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” about the ways an individual can undermine the mechanisms of a repressive system. State:
… [I]In its most original and expansive sense, living in the truth covers a vast territory whose outer limits are vague and difficult to map, a territory full of modest expressions of human will… Most of these expressions remain elemental rebellions against manipulation: you simply straighten your spine and live with greater dignity as an individual.
“A territory full of modest expressions of human will” is also the profound and elegant message of Our missing hearts. Celeste Ng’s latest work portrays down-to-earth Asian Americans who hope to make peace with the past and change the future by taking small, confident steps.
Thúy Đinh is a freelance literary critic and translator. His work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.