(In part four of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at a novel set in a fantasy world where rich, white suburbanites act like spoiled children. Is it just a fun story, or can this strange land of Shaker Heights, Ohio teach us something about the real world?)
The Rich People Are Actually Just Not Good Award
Celeste Ng – Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere describes the life of the Richardsons – a comfortably well-off family in the exclusive, all-American suburb of Shaker Heights, just outside Cleveland, Ohio. The Richardsons are a perfect family: the mother, Elena, a journalist for the local paper, the father an important lawyer, the children varying shades of academic and athletic excellence. Except for Izzy, who is rude and rebellious and not quite what a community such as Shaker Heights is looking for.
Into this idyllic (obviously actually suffocating and awful for anyone with a shred of self-awareness) world comes Mia, and her daughter Pearl. Mia is an artist, one who lives a deliberately frugal, bohemian lifestyle, and who never settles in one place for too long. Needless to say, Elena Richardson just cannot handle this.
How can someone actually want that life? Scraping by on part-time waitressing jobs, and the occasional income from her artwork? Sleeping on futons and sitting on crappy, old couches bought second-hand – never really owning anything, and never really belonging anywhere?
For a while Little Fires Everywhere follows the lives of Elena Richardson, her children, Mia, and Pearl. Elena decides to ‘do a good deed’ and let Mia and Pearl rent a floor of her second house for well below market rates. Teenage Pearl and the teenage Richardson children become friends, and the expected teenage things happen. Mia and Elena have some brief interactions where Elena exercises her power as benevolent feudal lord in ways that are subtle to her; blindingly obvious, visible-from-space to Mia.
It’s compelling (if a little aimless at times), and Celeste Ng’s skill for writing characters really shines. But of course it can’t last. Eventually scandal rocks Shake Heights, and everyone picks a side. Elena and Mia are on opposite sides, each tangentially involved, and needless to say Elena Richardson just cannot handle this.
From here Little Fires Everywhere gradually changes from a story about fitting in (and not fitting in) in this rich, exclusive neighbourhood, to the story of Elena Richardson: an outright villain. And the best kind of villain: a villain who’s convinced they’re only doing what is right and reasonable. A villain who would be genuinely baffled – scandalised even – if someone were to question her, or her concept of fairness and justice. A villain with a position in high society, and who will use every social privilege at her disposal to thumb the scales, and expose the liars and cheats and grifters who all just happen to be the exact people who respectfully disagree with her.
In other words, Little Fires Everywhere is a book about the balance of power in society, and how it is invisible to some (the people with power), and incredibly visible to others (the people without it). It uses Ng’s unmatched ability to get into the heads of her characters to show the way baffling amounts of social privilege can completely change a person’s way of thinking.
But instead of (just) portraying things from the underdog’s perspective, or having an author stand-in character to occasionally say ‘wow, she’s being a bit awful here, isn’t she?’, Ng eagerly embraces Elena Richardson’s point of view. She is almost never challenged – what she does is portrayed as obviously right and fair and reasonable – and the reader is expected to be smart enough to recognise that she is an absolute monster, though sadly not an exceptional one.
I’m going to finish this with a quotation, so I can make myself look smart: Endo Shusaku once wrote “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” Little Fires Everywhere is this Endo Shusaku quotation: The Novelisation.
Elena Richardson never, ever understands what she did wrong. She digs into people’s past, invades people’s privacy, breaks a handful of quite important laws, and just about ruins two (or possibly three) people’s lives. But will she ever be aware of that fact – will she connect the dots and realise just how awful she is? Of course not. Never in a million years. And that’s precisely what makes her just the worst.
Thanks for reading this important piece of literary analysis (it has a quote in it, so you know it’s important). If you liked it, and do the whole regrettable Twitter thing, follow me on Twitter here.