Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
(Abacus, 2014)

The winner of the Amazon Book of the Year, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Alex Award (don’t ask), the Asian/Pacific Librarians Association Award, the Medici Book Club Prize, and maybe a dozen more awards I’ve missed, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng has been heaped with more accolades than a North Korean general in charge of executing dissenters. Paraded upon the broad shoulders of the literary establishment as a stunning debut novel, one would expect to be dazzled by a story that could not be put down by even the most jaded reader. Be forewarned: scale those expectations down. Way down.

Ng’s 2014 novel is yet another Great American Novel chronicling the trials, tribulations, and adversity of the American bourgeois. Compete with an overbearing mother, a husband’s affair, and racism, critic Andrew Chee, writing for the New York Times, called it “a deep heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history.” So, now that we can add “struggling with a place in history” as another neurosis of the American middle class, we’re ready to delve into the story of another Nuclear Family as they make their way through relentless pity-evoking tragedies.

We begin with James Lee, a professor teaching American Cowboy Culture at Harvard. If it seems odd for an Ivy League University (or any university) to be offering such a class, wait until you find out that one of the featured cowboys in the course is John Wayne, who of course was an actor, not a cowboy. Several boorish male students get up and walk out of class on the first day, incredulous that their class is being taught by a man of Asian descent. One female student, Marilyn, feels such shock and outrage at the racist treatment that James receives she begins an affair with him. Discovering she is pregnant, they marry, even though Marilyn’s parents object to their daughter marrying an Asian man. And now we have the beginnings of a family destined for travails one after another that only get worse even after their daughter Lydia is found drowned in a lake.

There’s no need to go through them all here—readers have already been through them in the hundreds of Great American Novels that came before it. In many of the predictable ways that this novel tries to set itself apart came a very unpredictable one that can only cause a reader to drop his jaw in disbelief: a young homosexual male harboring a crush on another young male surreptitiously licks the lake water of his crush’s back after emerging from a swim. Stunningly, the young male does not notice he’s been licked, and furthermore, nobody else at the lake seems to notice it either. We’re going to have to add a whole new subcategory to Literary Realism after that one.

Ng is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious MFA program. One would expect elite programs at elite universities to give us elite and compelling writing. But when we find sentences like this, “To James, though, the word rifles from his wife’s mouth and lodges deep in his chest,” we have to wonder if young novelists can forego the MFAs and just go straight to scribbling after graduation from eighth grade Poetry and Composition.

Nobody witnessed Lydia’s drowning. In fact, she had been reported as a missing person prior to being found in the lake. When the police report finally arrives, we are told that the police made a grave error regarding the manner of Lydia’s death. It begs the question how anyone could know this; no one was around when Lydia died. One can only wonder what Ng’s fellow MFA students from the prestigious University of Michigan would have to say about that in a workshop.

Credit must be given to these authors who venture to write these Great American Novels. It’s difficult to find good story in people’s lives that consist of not much more than career moves, retirement accounts, saving for a brat’s college, or catching a Door Busters sale at the local department store. Everything I Never Told You fails, like most of them do, because to get a story out of such mundane boredom requires reaching for the absurd and the ridiculous and the unbelievable (see Franzen, Jonathan).

Click here to buy Everything I Never Told You.