Sleepwalking in Texas

November 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

I enjoyed Simon Han’s debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, about an immigrant Chinese family living in the suburbs of Plano, Texas, in the early aughts. I got to know Han a little when I met him at Bread Loaf in 2018, but I don’t remember if he spoke much about his project then.

As the title suggests, many scenes in the book take place at night, and the gentle register of Han’s prose evokes an effort to avoid disturbance. The Cheng family has two children, older brother Jack and younger sister Annabel. Liang is a portrait photographer and Patty works long hours in the semiconductor business. Annabel has taken to sleepwalking, and her brother must set out into the neighborhood in the wee hours to find her.

Much like Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, the characters are trying to maneuver through a suburban landscape that promises safety on the surface, but that gloss only makes it harder to spot the dangers that lurk. A disruption occurs in the middle of Nights When Nothing Happened that amounts to the book’s only real plot point, and as in Little Fires, rumor, misunderstanding, and racism contribute to a tense confrontation with the potential to harm lives.

As though we are trying to pay mind to a sleepwalker, the book is artfully devoid of clamorous sentences. Rather, Han creates uncanny moments of silence with his language, opting for his sentences to be let down softly.

But tonight the moon was missing, and the sky had never seemed so big. Big and black and interrupted by roofs and satellite dishes and crosses. Starless and full of folds, blue-black hiding spots. Liang’s shirt clung to him with sweat. He imagined the wind ferrying warmth from the Panhandle, swirling with the evaporated salt spray of the Gulf. How long had it been since he’d breathed air with conviction. There was no such thing as a Texas sky; there was only sky.

There is also a significant amount of dialogue spoken by children—more than is typically attempted in a novel for adult readers. Many of these lines are spoken to each other, with no adult present—and it seems like each line isn’t meant to direct us anywhere, but is there to dizzy the reader with its range of interpretations heard through the sonic fuzz of kid logic.

“Not today,” she said to Elsie. “I’ll break my arm after Thanksgiving.”

“Do you… have to?”

“I got to do it before Christmas. Then Santa will give me a big and beautiful cast greener than Kermit. And you can put your stickers on it.”

Elsie was on the verge of tears. “But I wanted to put my stickers on m lunch box.”

“Hey.” Annabel was almost a heard shorter than Elsie, but when she brought her hand up to the girl’s face, Elsie winced. “It hurts so so so much to break my arm. I’ll feel better with your stickers.” Annabel gave the girl’s cheeks a light sweep. “You’re my friend, right?”

You can read the first chapter of Nights When Nothing Happened at Electric Literature.

At NPR, you’ll find Scott Simon’s interview with the author as well as this thoughtful review by Leland Cheuk. Lastly, Han has an essay at The Paris Review blog that gives context to the immigrant experience in Plano.

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