Reading Like a Writer: Everything I Never Told You and a Particular Omniscience
Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You is a novel about a dead teenage girl and a family that can't quite connect.
The first line of the book, "Lydia is dead," struck me as a bit of gimmick when I first encountered it. It seemed intentionally brazen and meant to impress—a bit of drama designed for its shock value. A trick to pull me in.
But throughout the book, the sentence stayed with me in a different way and I realized that it was doing far more for the story than just that.
I'd like to consider the novel's opening more closely.
Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.
First, the direct statement of a devastating fact does some obvious things for the novel. It shifts the mystery. Another story that opened with the disappearance of a young girl might be consumed with the question of her fate. It would compel the reader by promising, yet denying, the answer to a simple question: Is she alive?
This novel also winds itself around the mystery of what happened to Lydia, but the question is not merely physical. Immediately establishing the fact that she's dead allows the novel to focus on what happened to Lydia emotionally. It can explore the dynamics of the entire family, the strained and particular threads that tangle between them and the way those strings reverberate in response to the death. The mystery that compels us can be Lydia's life and the reasons for her death rather than just the fact of it, or the detailing of its mechanics.
But that's the obvious part. I'm more interested in what the opening does for the voice that tells the story.
The first lines establish omniscience because they tell what no one knows. Lydia's body has not yet been found. Her family doesn't even realize she's missing.
After the lines quoted, the narrator does a quick spin through the different family members, relating what each is doing that morning. It gives intimate details—a yawn, a nudge, a sucking. And it describes mental states—the father is vexed, the son is "still twined in his dream," the daughter is waiting. But it doesn't give the direct thoughts of the characters. It's all-knowing, yet outside.
After the first paragraph, the voice moves solidly into the perspective of the mother and stays there for six pages before jumping into the father's perspective.
Starting outside of any single person's perspective tells us quickly what general sort of voice is talking. It also alerts us that when the voice enters the mother's consciousness, it doesn't have to stay there. I'm not surprised when the voice moves to the father. Neither am I comfortable. I always know this speaker can jump away and it unsettles me slightly, keeps me on edge as a reader.
But how much of that comes from the first sentence and how much from the rest of the paragraph?
Despite the movement from character to character, I don't think the first paragraph would establish omniscience without the "Lydia is dead" line. Those intimate details of the family would seem to come from the mother. At first read, we wouldn't know precisely who was talking, but on getting her perspective one paragraph later, we would conclude that she was thinking about her family—describing their feelings because she knows them well enough to do so.
Of course, it later becomes apparent that she does not know them well enough to do so. Or, at least, she's not in the habit of thinking of them quite this way.
So the revelation—the telling of something that nobody knows—is crucial to the immediate establishment of an omniscient perspective.
And consider what would happen if the story began with the mother's perspective, if we didn't meet this voice first as a separate entity, outside of her mind. Our sympathies would immediately be drawn to one character and we would see the book as her story. We'd be pulled, later, into other characters' minds, but we might always be just a touch more sympathetic to her than to the others. And that shift would necessarily change the experience of the book.
But there's more. The first line establishes the voice as a very particular type of omniscient narrator.
Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet.
When it tells what the family doesn't know, the voice speaks against the characters rather than for them. It's rather sinister. And it's significant that this utterance is the introduction to the entire book.
When the narrator aligns with a family member, it goes into that character's brain, but because of the first line, I know that there's no true loyalty. The narrator tells what each character does and thinks and knows, but I don't quite get the sense that the voice is taking anyone's side.
There's a coldness there that does so much for this story. It places us, somehow, in a cool middle distance, mirroring how the characters are to each other.
Family members watch each other closely but never fully connect. It's real and devastating. There's all sorts of love in this book—characters ache with it—but it's love that gets lost. It's love that can't quite reach its target.
The voice makes us feel this by bringing us achingly close to each family member—we go inside each person's head—but we never align, not quite, not fully. It's like what the characters feel for each other.
And I see one more advantage to this voice that begins "Lydia is dead."
Through refusal to identify completely with anybody else and the sly telling of facts that nobody in the story can know, this voice becomes a distinct character with real personality. We feel it immediately. Because its agenda is not aligned with that of another character, we understand that it has its own.
And personality in voice—it's crucial to storytelling. The voice shapes the story. It gives it a reason for being told. It determines the entire novel.
When has the voice of a novel particularly grabbed you? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" starting this February at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.