Originally Published in The Washington Post
Ron Charles - November 30, 2020
That desperation pervades every page of Simon Han’s debut novel, “Nights When Nothing Happened.” This is a story in which no one sleeps well — not the adults, not even the children. All of them are pinched with unease, a vague anxiety repressed during the day but unleashed once the lights go off.
What’s most fascinating about “Nights When Nothing Happened” is the way Han, who was born in China and raised in Texas, explores how anxiety thwarts the archetypal experience of immigrant success. In his telling, the American Dream is disrupted by nightmares that a good job and a house in the suburbs can’t quell.
The novel revolves around Liang Cheng and his wife, Patty, who moved from China to the United States in the 1990s. By all appearances, they have attained exactly what they wanted, but Han’s descriptions are flecked with notes of muffled dismay. Liang ostensibly runs a photography business, but it’s really a collection of booths in which high school girls snap their own pictures. Liang realizes he has become like his drunken poker buddies, men who wobble home “snoring into their wives’ turned backs, waking up their children for hugs they did not wish to give.”
Patty, far more sophisticated in the ways of American culture and more fluent in English, is a leading engineer with Texas Semiconductor, but the job scuttled her PhD studies, and the hours — synchronized with an office in Bangalore — are exhausting. Somehow, the benefits of American prosperity have yielded little actual pleasure. These days, Patty finds that just commuting to work feels “like an accomplishment” — “no taxis, bicycles, rickshaws, mopeds, or bodies interrupted her.”
Han keeps his focus on this sad family, but he’s a subtle and astute cultural critic, too, casting a satiric eye over the land of opportunity and the unbounded promises of consumer paradise. The Chengs and their two children live in Plano, Tex., in “a suburb of oven mitts and motion sensors. Voice recognition and outlet plug covers.” It is a city wholly controlled, thoroughly engineered for convenience. Best of all, Han writes, “Plano had the lowest crime rate in Texas.” Patty and Liang chose it “in order not to be scared.”
Why, then, do they feel slightly afraid all the time?
The novel opens in November 2003, at night, a realm of muted sounds and colors that feels both peaceful and ominous. Eleven-year-old Jack hears something and slips out of his bedroom to look for his little sister, Annabel. “He wandered outside without slapping on shoes, his mind still muddled with dream sounds,” Han writes. “The houses on both sides of Plimpton Court stood like tombs.” Jack finds one of Annabel’s slippers in the grass. His heart beats so loudly that it seems to call him along the trail. Then he finds her other slipper.
We’re primed for the worst — abduction! murder! — but we soon learn that Han is pursuing something more intricate and indefinite.
In the dim light, Jack sees his sister standing on a bridge over a creek. Still partially asleep, she thinks Jack is her father. “They needed to go back,” Jack thinks, “to the sprinkler-fed grass, the potted mums, the vanilla-scented pinecones.” But all those efforts to artificially beautify the environment can’t eliminate the current of apprehension that runs through this family.
The title “Nights When Nothing Happened” is meant to be ironic, of course, but impatient readers may feel it’s spot on. Persist! Han builds the tension in this story slowly, but he builds it with exquisite care, and it’s entirely worth the investment.
Liang, still suffering the effects of a traumatic childhood back in China, thrashes violently in his sleep and trudges through his days in a fog of disquiet. Patty suspects their marriage was probably a mistake, but she carries on, believing her unhappiness is irrelevant. Their bigger concern is Annabel, who is having social troubles in kindergarten. Patty is convinced another little girl in the class is to blame, but in chapters brilliantly told from Annabel’s point of view, we see the situation is more complex. Han has a perfect ear for a child’s perception of the world, that uncanny mixture of confidence, innocence and mystification. Eventually, in the novel’s most masterful scene, Annabel’s willfulness and her father’s awkwardness bring down an avalanche of suspicion that shakes this family to its core.
Physical attacks, name-calling, job discrimination — such dramatic expressions of prejudice naturally draw our attention, but “Nights When Nothing Happened” captures a more insidious breed of racism: an atmosphere of White wariness that the Chengs must constantly navigate. It’s a collection of pained smiles, whispered comments and polite avoidance that saps their confidence and poisons their spirit. Liang and Patty must exert so much effort to be flawlessly normal, appropriately suburban, perfectly neighborly that rest becomes impossible. Without comprehending the cause, their children detect the electricity in the air of their troubled home.
Han’s expansive sympathy and twilight lyricism make “Nights When Nothing Happened” a poignant study of the immigrant experience. This is an author who understands on a profound level the way past trauma interacts with the pressures of assimilation to disrupt a good night’s sleep, even a life.