Ben Smithgall

Welcome to the web blog

Bit pusher at Spotify. Previously Interactive News at the New York Times, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng

Finished reading on August 17, 2019

There are a number of things that stand out in this novel about Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland. The most compelling to me is the way that Ng so clearly captures the neurosis of the way that the suburbs are planned and experienced. Small details enhance this: the adults are only ever known by their last names when they are grown there; we only get their first names when they are outside Shaker or in conversation with other adults, though the narrator continues to refer to them as Mr./Mrs. Everything is in its specific place, and the range of acceptable experiences are thinned to a point where it is nearly impossible to consider anything out what you see every day. The book spends quite a while luxuriously building out this specifically American, late-capitalism moment, and it pays off down the line. Ng clearly captures the way that this setting creates a deep and uncomfortable tension in its characters: people who consider themselves progressive and altruistic become cruel and vindictive when things intrude on their peaceful and quiet way of life.

Ng uses two other writing techniques to great effect. She quickly shifts between characters points of view across her writing, creating unresolvable tension by having characters experience events with different subsets of information, leading to people reacting in ways that, while totally understandable given what they think they know, are absolutely unreasonable given the complete picture. The other thing that she does is create depth in her characters by briefly shifting the setting into the future (“she would remember this moment eleven years later”), allowing her presumably older and wiser characters to reflect on something with continued bemusement.

The event that surrounds the story of Little Fires Everywhere (the burning down of the Richardson’s house) does not really resolve the fundamental tension in the book. There is an almost Marxist construction in the fundamental shape of the story: the thesis of the Richardsons meets its antithesis in Mia, and the contradiction cannot hold which creates the fire. Of course, the result is not a synthesis or something new. Perhaps ironically, the Richardsons rebuild their house, Mia and Pearl move on, and things seem to continue on just as they were before. What are we to make of this? Has late capitalism evolved to simply consume contradictions, as Naomi Klein suggests in No Logo? It’s certainly interesting to consider.