How to Lose Your Job
Celeste Ng’s magnum opus, Little Fires Everywhere, has been flying off the shelves of the bookstore that served as my day job in the summer months. Four copies — swept off the shelves, to the checkout counter, and out the door — have found their new owners, just since the first midsize SUV carrying some freshman’s most useful possessions pulled up on Temple University’s dorms last week. The smart money says this is the most any Philadelphian has cared about suburban Ohio since LeBron James was a Cleveland Cavalier; I couldn’t let that go unremarked upon.
“That’s a popular book this week,” I said, sliding a copy of the great American novel past the scanner. “Good book, too — courtroom intrigue, geopolitical disputes, drama, Cosby Show references. It’s the whole nine yards.”
“Oh?” the buyer raised an eyebrow. “I only watched the show. Didn’t like it, but people kept telling me the book was way better.”
“It probably is.” I had read the book in a deal with a friend, I said — as I was explaining the central conflicts of Christian Bale and Matt Damon’s Ford vs. Ferrari to her, my friend said that it reminded her of Little Fires Everywhere. So, we made a deal: I’d dig into Ng’s novel, my friend would watch the best movie of 2019, and we’d reconvene when we were both done to compare notes.
It was the buyer’s friend’s turn to raise an eyebrow. She’d read Little Fires Everywhere, the friend related, and seen Ford vs. Ferrari, but it hadn’t crossed her mind that the two of them could exist in conversation. “What did you guys decide?” she asked. “Like, how were the two related?”
Her raised eyebrow had a point; they aren’t. One is an almost all-white, adrenaline fueled tale of the ultimate test of man and machine that shuttles between SoCal and the Circuit de la Sarthe; the other is a parable, about the complications that diversity brings to a tranquil crop of cul-de-sacs on Lake Erie. But they’re fused together by the eyes of their respective storms, the common backbone from which hangs every conflict in either work of art. It’s why I found both stories so compelling — and why, perhaps, I was thinking so deeply of them, instead of a blowout election in the middle of nowhere, on August 16.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Ford vs. Ferrari, it’s this: It was the best movie of 2019.
Sorry, Parasite. No, really. Sorry. Maybe I’m just a racing fan, and any quality movie made about the sport I love is liable to win my heart — especially with effects and cinematography like that. Or maybe I managed to see a sliver of my own awkward self in Ken Miles, what it meant for him to find souls on Earth who put up with his nonsense and put down his doubters. (Yes, that’s weird; I accept such truths wholeheartedly.)
I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve never looked up from any 2019 production and said, “You know, I think this movie might be better than Ford vs. Ferrari.”
The first person we meet in Ford vs. Ferrari isn’t Miles, even though Ken Miles is far and away the most compelling figure the movie can offer. Instead, we meet Carroll Shelby, a retired renegade racer who picks the cranky, contrarian Miles to join him in building a Ford sports car that can win Le Mans. Ford’s executives like Shelby: He’s a legend who’s learned the rules of the corporate road since an injury forced him off the track for good, and it’s tough to imagine a more modal ambassador for the most American of all car brands.
Ken Miles is a completely different story — we meet him as a clanging, cursing California devil who literally talks smack to his opponents on the straightaways and whacks his own trunk in the middle of the garage to bring his car in line with regulations. Miles’ anger, competitive drive, and stubbornness don’t tick down when Shelby plucks him from the club racing circuit to become the face of an international brand, and Ford Corp. can’t help but notice.
Throughout Ford vs. Ferrari, Ken Miles has only two things going for him: He’s faster than a comet in a hockey rink, thanks to his Yoda-like knowledge of automotive innards, and he’s got an advocate with a diamond smile and a handshake to beat the band. Miles’ (righteous) confidence in his (immaculate) on-track abilities does not make him a popular man in Dearborn’s boardrooms, and so Shelby’s life becomes a war — on one hand, he’s Miles’ fiercest advocate, knowing full well that his driver is the guy to bring sports car racing’s biggest prize to the rolling hills of Michigan. On the other, Shelby becomes Miles’ single most important critic, the angel on his shoulder who smooths things over when the driver’s conflicts with management simply aren’t worth it. (It’s easy to forgive Carrol Shelby when he’s got an arm around your shoulder, telling you that everything’s going to be alright. Ken Miles is a tougher sell, in part because he never puts an arm around anyone’s shoulder, for anything, ever.)
If there’s any difference between Ken Miles and Mia Warren, whose life forms the eye of the storm in Little Fires Everywhere, it’s that Mia Warren… is a fictional character. Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby really did roll into Le Mans in 1969, looking to bring Ford international glory; Warren exists as a figment of Celeste Ng’s imagination. The other difference is that Warren has no advocates.
Warren comes before us as a mercurial artist who constantly uproots herself and her teenage daughter, Pearl, to chase inspiration in faraway locales. Shaker Heights, Warren thinks, is different. She pledges to her daughter that their moving days are over; watches as Pearl forms bonds with Mrs. Richardson’s children; and finds steady work as a waitress by night to supplement the artwork she does during the day.
But a permanent life, as Ng explains, confers a weight to the eyeballs of the surrounding world that nomadism does not. Pearl’s friendship with the Richardson kids brings confusions and complications that don’t have time to fester when you’re just passing through, and Mia’s friendship with a working-class Chinese coworker puts her in the carpool lane to a combustible conflict with the Richardsons’ closest friends.
Simply put, the way Mia lives her life isn’t attuned to community for much the same reason Miles’ life isn’t: She’s never had to attune her life to community before. Her circle of friends is a dot, comprising a single art dealer; she’s self-employed, having lacked the canopy of institutions since her daughter was born. (There’s a reason for that — read the book.) Most of all, she’s out of place upon the Earth, having never ripped a hole through her desires and eccentricities large enough for anyone besides Pearl to poke through.
If Mia’s wanderings upon the earth really have wrapped up, her state of being upon the earth has to change, too. Living without a care for the opinions of others is a scroll, that stretches itself into an interminable future until you replace the sheet with another scroll — with, so to speak, other others. In a moment of fatigue or in a hunger for a new era, Mia had decided that she’d run out of others — Shaker Heights would be her scroll, from her arrival on out. Pearl would spend the twilight of her childhood in a stable, unbroken circle, and Mia’s work would rest from the wanderer’s worry lines. That’s the promise that greets us at the start of Little Fires: No matter what happens in the next 300 or so pages, the Warrens’ lives have been transformed into a permanent bucket episode until further notice.
But even bucket episodes have a price — a cost to the privilege of staying in one place. It’s a bill that Mia hasn’t seen before Ng’s narrative begins, and every moment that follows this one will stretch the bill further out. The real question, the one that will decide the rest of the Warrens’ and Richardsons’ lives, is whether or not Mia’s willing to pay.
There are no liaisons in Little Fires Everywhere — not those kinds of liaisons, anyway. Mia lives alone, and her few allies live on the edge of or underneath the polite lights of Shaker Heights. She’s not the angry, confrontational sort of outsider — not like Ken Miles, anyway — and she makes a decent-faith effort to get along with the people in time. But, when Mia can’t get along, when the injustices that flash before her eyes are worth sticking her fingers in the sides of the people whose approval she needs to stay afloat, there are no Carrolls Shelby to buy her more runtime, no million-dollar smiles to save her hide when she loses interest in saving it herself. You’d think that such a buffer would pop out of the woodwork, if only for Pearl’s sake. They do not, and for 352 pages we watch Mia Warren walk atop a tightrope with no net — only her own footwork separates her from the wrath of the powers that be.
“The French far right,” read the New Yorker’s headline on Marine Le Pen’s blockbuster presidential campaign, “comes on little cat feet.”
Translation: If France’s alt-right wing wanted to crash the political mainstream, they couldn’t do it by roaring the rhetoric of white nationalist revolution. The French had heard all that before, when the Vichy government outsourced the major decisions to the occupying Nazis in World War II. Instead, the far-right Reassemblement party cast Le Pen as a Bourbon Bob Dole, cutting the usual race-centered whiskey with the waters of grizzled wisdom on pocketbook topics. In part because she turned her own party into a make-believe Nazi rehab, and in part because a solid swath of the French electorate could not have cared less about whether the Nazis had actually rehabbed, Le Pen and the Reassemblement managed to cast the center-right into outer darkness in favor of her own family’s movement.
Wyoming didn’t sell many feline shoes in the spring and summer of ’22. Instead, the most sparsely-populated state in the Union served up Harriet Hageman, a sharp-voiced attorney from Ft. Laramie who holds, at the tip of the iceberg that “the Biden administration is the largest human trafficking operation in the Western world.”
If it sounds like Hageman and reality aren’t exactly on speaking terms, congratulations! You have already gotten the point of this story down-pat.
Once upon a time, in politics of all shades, lying was a liability. If you coughed up falsehoods too often (or too clumsily), voters would start to see you as an unreliable mercenary — or, worse yet, a demagogue. Hillary Clinton made up a tall tale about being shot at on an airplane tarmac in Bosnia; John Edwards insisted that he hadn’t fathered a child with one of his campaign staffers; Michelle Bachmann claimed that the HPV vaccine could cause kids to become mentally disabled. None of these things were true, and none of these people made it to the White House. Oh, there were other lies, like Kennedy making up a number to list as our “missile gap” or Obama’s declaration that his healthcare bill wouldn’t cost you your doctor or your plan. But those lies were just artful enough to keep them from being lethal.
In 2015, we were introduced to a new kind of political lie — not particularly artful, and not tactfully told, and certainly not on little cat feet, just battered like a ram down the throats of its hearers. With those lies came a relatively new kind of liar: Donald John Trump, soon to be the 45th President of the United States.
It’s one thing to say, for example, that “blacks kill 81 percent of white homicide victims,” or that thousands of Muslims took to their rooftops on 9/11, filled with joy at the fatwa-fueled fracturing of the New York City skyline. To utter them, out loud, and stay afloat in an election is quite another thing entirely. These weren’t just lies out of left field, after all; they were lies tinged with racial and religious arsenic. Getting away with lies like these, once marooned on the backs of Schutzstaffel hagiographies, wouldn’t just say something about the liar; it would say something damp and dark about the nation that would allow itself to be lied to.
Trump, for the most part, got away with lies like this, up to and beyond the day he assumed the presidency and promptly falsified the size of his inauguration crowd for… (checks notes) no apparent reason. Oh, sure, people called him out on every lie — news reporters, politicians from both left and right, YA authors, the occasional semi-retired lead vocalist… you get the picture. But, no matter what the lie was, President Trump would figure out a way to dust himself off and move on, as if he were a quarterback with an awful offensive line and we’d just sent him tumbling to the turf. There was always the next play, or the next week. It would have been a work of performance art, were it not happening in rooms that held the nuclear codes.
In 2020, though, Trump put the prototypes of his most audacious lie in the rhetorical garage, and replaced it with his most ambitious mass-produced non-truth yet. As the results from that November’s election rolled in, Trump’s re-election bid had clearly rolled snake eyes — and, yet, he insisted that he’d come up aces, that, “frankly, we did win this election.” Frankly, he did not, and none of his deputies believed he had, but that didn’t stop at least 2,000 of his supporters from storming the U.S. Capitol two weeks before his successor’s inauguration, in a fruitless attempt to stall the certification of the election results. Nor did their reservations save the lives of the five people — all Trump supporters, some law enforcement — who died as they tried to make Trump’s fantasy reality. Nor did the apparent strength of Trump’s conviction that it is simply impossible to lose exculpate him from the impeachment proceedings that the House uncorked in his final days as president.
Of the 213 House Republicans and 50 Republicans hanging out in Congress during the riot, only 10 Republican U.S. representatives and 7 Republican senators — Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Toomey, Burr, Sasse, and Dr. Bill Cassidy — voted to cast him out. No one was louder about it than Liz Cheney.
The third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Cheney was a scion of Wyoming Republican royalty. Her father, Dick Cheney, had served as the state’s lone congressman, Defense Secretary, defense-contracting poohbah, and Vice President, in that order, thundering into pole position as one of the most controversial men in America after spearheading President Bush’s push for war in Iraq. Liz herself, with a degree from Chicago Law and five years’ work in the State Department, did not, as Robert Frost would say, go behind her father’s saying during her years of work in Bush’s White House.
A conservative’s conservative, Cheney challenged a Wyoming Republican named Mike Enzi for the Senate in 2014, attracting the endorsements of the talk radio element (Hannity, Levin, Tammy Bruce, and the late Rush Limbaugh) on claims that Enzi wasn’t conservative enough to make the state’s case in Washington, D.C. Her campaign fell flat for a couple of reasons — she hadn’t spent most of her adult life in Wyoming, no matter how great Sean Hannity thought she was — but one of them, as former Senator Olympia Snowe told Politico, was simply that there was “no reason to challenge” Enzi. Cheney called it quits and closed up shop before it was even possible for her to appear on the ballot, and Enzi would serve in the Senate until he retired in January 2021. (That July, the freshly-formered senator broke his neck after he crashed his bike in the hills outside Gillette; he was pronounced dead on July 26.)
Cheney rose like sourdough in the years to follow: She was elected to Wyoming’s only seat in the House after Cynthia Lummis retired in 2016. Two years later, the voters returned her to Congress, and her Republican colleagues elected her chairwoman of their conference, making her the third highest-ranking member of the party’s House delegation. All the while, she was a F1–50-level vote for the Trump administration’s ideas — good and bad — with one exception: She didn’t like his foreign policy. She didn’t like it when he cozied up to the likes of Putin and Kim, and she didn’t like it when Trump questioned America’s place in NATO. In a word, she didn’t like when her party’s president backed off the country’s commitment to democracy. And nowhere did the would-be king from Queens decommit from democracy quite like he did after the 2020 election.
Cheney blasted Trump in the aftermath of the riot, but she wasn’t on an island there — not at first. Kevin McCarthy, the highest-ranking House Republican, said he’d tell Trump to resign. (McCarthy said he didn’t say he would do that; *the New York Times* produced a recording revealing that he did.) Steve Scalise called on the party to exorcise the demons that had followed Trump into the GOP and learn to live in a “post-Trump House.” And Tom Emmer, overseer of House Republicans’ campaign apparatus, wished that the party would censure the outgoing president, in public, where everyone could see what they really thought about the guy who’d run the Republican show for the previous quadrennium. Simply put, the House GOP — and the nation — was alight with a single resolve: No one gets to screw with America’s system of representative government, no matter how important they are.
…And then the lights started to go out.
McCarthy, never quite the bulb of a thousand burning suns, probably couldn’t win the speakership if he led a crusade against Trump, and so he issued a blanket statement saying that his ex-counterpart “bears responsibility” for the riot and virtually never criticized him in public again. Scalise, Emmert, and all but ten members of the House were right behind him. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who referred to Trump as “the son of a bitch” between bites of local Louisville Chick-fil-A during the then-president’s impeachment trial, voted against the consummation of that impeachment when it climbed the steps of the upper chamber. (Although McConnell & Co. haven’t exactly been serenading Trump with “Valerie” in his years of exile.)
One by one, the Right’s public officials fell in line behind the man whose face had become their own, and the ones who didn’t started to flicker their way into unemployment. Nancy Mace, impeachment voter? Totally changed her tune in the two years since and managed to survive her primary. Adam Kinzinger, the other Republican on the House committee investigating January 6, didn’t change his tune; his re-election bid was so hopeless that he just decided to retire. Peter Meijer did not retire, and went down to defeat in his primary up in Northern Michigan after the Democrats, of all people, **spent money backing his pro-Trump opponent. (So much for defending democracy. But that’s its own piece.)
Cheney refused to retire, refused to stop manning the barricades against Trump’s lie, and refused to refuse Nancy Pelosi’s offer to co-chair the investigative committee. As such, her political career in the last two years has resembled a baby taking their first steps in the stairwell of a New York City skyscraper. First, there was the House’s vote to remove her from leadership, which failed before Kevin McCarthy decided to simply take a voice vote, in which Cheney, once so conservative that she opposed her own sister’s marriage to a female partner, was branded as a “woke” and a “RINO” while her place on the front bench went to an Equality Act booster named Elise Stefanik. (Stefanik, in one of the most cynical displays I’ve seen since Brian Kelly borrowed Daigle’s Cajun accent, switched her vote on the Act not long before her resume got pulled, though she did vote to enshrine the right of gays to marry in federal law a few months ago. Another crossover vote? US Representative Elizabeth Cheney, of Wyoming’s at-large district. “Don’t go asking Jesus why,” as Chris Stapleton said.)
Then, there was the primary itself, where Cheney, who had never grabbed less than 60 percent of the vote in her first three runs for Congress, suddenly found herself opposed by the entire Republican caucus. And now — as I struggle to explain what is happening without uncorking a spoiler — there’s the rest of her fight. It’s not lonely the way we usually think of loneliness, in that she’s not alone. But it’s lonely in the way that matters: Every moment of Cheney’s life, to this point, has been sent in the service of a movement that hung her out to dry at the first sign of wrongthink.
Surely Liz Cheney was shocked that so few of her colleagues came to her defense. She should have been shocked they didn’t hang her out sooner.
If you didn’t know, now you know: Replacing Cheney with Harriet Hageman was Trump’s number-one goal in the 2022 midterm elections. Polls never had the incumbent even close to close to holding on to the at-large seat, yet Trump still took a day out of his schedule to fly to Wyoming and range his army of impassioned admirers against her. More than his losing crusade against Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp, or his Peyton-esque push in Prescott, Arizona, to elect a veritable platoon of authoritarians, the former president seemed to relish his campaign against Cheney — a relatively defenseless backbencher with odds slim enough to make Kevin Durant look like a TV chef. She was, as I mentioned, alone, backed mostly by old bosses, like the former President Bush and fellow exiles like Kinzinger and Paul Ryan. (One celebrity, Kevin Costner, posed for pictures in front of farm sheds after donning a T-shirt that read, verbatim, “I’M FOR LIZ CHENEY.” The endorsement was so shocking that the fact-checkers at Snopes.com were still unsure if the picture was real, as of August 27.) Even Mike Pence, who had tried in vain to thwart Trump’s push in Arizona, and Chris Christie, who had joined Pence to defend Kemp in Georgia, were nowhere to be found; Cheney was just too toxic for the Republican base.
In some ways, that’s the greatest irony of all. The night Abraham Lincoln camped out at the telegraph office to learn if a war-ready nation had lifted him to power, he did so with an iron-spined belief: When the rule of law was vigorously applied to the controversies of the antebellum era, it would deliver the fruits of freedom and justice. William McKinley bought that idea when he fought for “sound money”; Herbert Hoover bought into that idea when he refused to bend the government to the needs of the Great Depression; Scott, Goldwater, and Rhodes bought that idea, too, when they made the trek down Pennsylvania Avenue to warn Richard Nixon out of office. The alternative — that the law is constantly slipping out of shape, in need of regular rejiggering to remain just — is the animating principle of wide-eyed liberalism. The extreme, that the rule of law represents an arrogation that must be put right by the battle of democracy, is in its natural habitat on the far left.
Donald Trump is a tribune of the third idea. He doesn’t think the rule of law delivers justice, or that it sits in legitimate hands, or that the instruments of the current order are enough to make sure government does the right thing. Instead, for the former president and those who follow him, the game of democracy and legitimacy is rigged, to be played only by the greedy and the gullible. To accept its results is to betray real Americans, and to revere its unwritten rules is to prepare to lose. Liz Cheney, and everyone who upheld the last election, is the square in this story, the stodgy, staid establishment figure who wants to keep things as they are; Cheney, and her exiles, are the true conservatives, in the most literal sense. Republicans have not cast her out in spite of her conservative bent; they’ve cast her out because of it, and become that which their Spanish-language marketing departments have sought to destroy.
The beliefs of the last 160 years asked Cheney to break her contract with the order of the day — the thousands of little lies we tell ourselves and our betters to keep our jobs and our places. For some reason or another, it was a price she was willing to pay.
On Monday, August 8, 2022, the FBI raided Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Florida mansion. Leader and followers alike inveighed against the Bureau, denouncing the raid as an act of third-world despotism and raising the specter of retaliatory violence. The Justice Department, in defense of its federal agents, revealed that Trump had stolen boxes of top-secret information from the White House, and that the raid only happened because the government wanted its files back. This was good enough for the federal judge who empowered the FBI with a warrant; whether it’ll be good enough for the American people remains to be seen.
It certainly wasn’t good enough to save Liz Cheney’s career.
Perhaps no evidence of criminality on the former president’s part would have been enough to change Wyoming’s mind. By August 16, two weeks ago, even Cheney’s allies thought her pitch had left the Sparsest State in the dust, centering instead on the threat Trump posed to democracy and the need for a national bullhorn against him. It sounded like she was toying with the prospect of running for president. (”It’s certainly something I’m thinking about,” she told NBC’s Today show.) But, between the aughts-era Democrats who loathe her father and the modern alt-righters who despise Liz Cheney herself, it’s not entirely clear how she would command enough votes to make any real noise. She can raise money for sure, and she can win applause from pieces of the polity, but whatever role Liz Cheney will play in the climax of the Trump saga certainly wasn’t decided in Wyoming.
Harriet Hageman won the Republican primary with nearly 70 percent of the vote, while Cheney couldn’t even crack 30 in her last stand. Tallies like that don’t make for late nights, and so Cheney’s concession speech, which was more about her drive to take the fight directly to Trump, aired at a halfway decent hour, as millions of impassioned Americans watched her electoral career shrivel on a once-luscious vine. She’d wrestled with a need all of us carry deep in our DNA, the need to put survival above everything else, and beaten evolution before she could beat the election. Maybe Liz Cheney was just ahead of her time.
And, yet, the experience undeniably changed her: Last September, in a “60 Minutes” interview, Cheney said she’d changed her mind on gay marriage and made a fan in the process — her sister, Mary, who’s raising kids with her female spouse. “It took a ton of courage,” Mary Cheney posted on Facebook, “to admit that she was wrong in 2013 when she opposed marriage equality. That is something few politicians would ever do.” But Liz Cheney didn’t just stop there: She spoke of the need to defend transgender children, and the need to work against “discrimination of all kinds” across the country.
“Freedom means freedom for everybody,” Cheney told CBS’ Leslie Stahl. The rule of law delivers justice.
Ken Miles’ biggest fan is family, too; throughout his every foible and ultimate failure in Ford vs. Ferrari’s 152-minute runtime, he never loses his son’s admiring gaze. As he wins his fight to accompany Ford to Le Mans, and then proves his mettle on the track, Miles’ every act waxes heroic, horrifying, and heart-rending, sometimes all at once, but the son’s confidence in the father never wavers. Even when the dangers of the track become clearer than ever, it is Miles’ son, and not Carol Shelby, who watches over him closest of all. The eyes of the world might be on Ford Corporation, but the only eyes that matter sit on the little boy beside Ken Miles. But his eyes stay shrouded and clouded through much triumph and tragedy, and so our window into his mind is left forever incomplete.
Well, it’s incomplete except for one scene.
During a test run at Shelby’s operation in Southern California, Miles suffers a brief scare when his brakes fail in the fast lane. That night, as the car’s mechanics try to figure out what went wrong, the son — a wee lad, maybe 10 years old — starts to pepper the mechanic with his deepest fears.
Have you ever been on fire, the son wants to know? “The suit’s flameproof,” the mechanic explains.
Drivers in fireproof suits have burned before, the son points out, like in the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix. “As long as you get out of the car,” the mechanic returns, “you’re okay.”
There’s a moment of silence, one that leaves the viewer wondering whether all this is prophetic or persecutory, and then the son brings his closer. “Dad got out,” he whispers, “didn’t he?”
It’s not like the mechanic has anything to add to that, and so he simply says, “He sure did.”
Ford vs. Ferrari makes Ken Miles’ shortcomings as a dad pretty tough to ignore. There’s the judgement we pass on any racer when we talk about bootleggers and dangerous business, sure. But there’s also the fact that Miles’ son won’t have particularly pleasant memories of the father’s years of thunder. The kid is, effectively, the only child to appear on-screen for the duration of the film; he certainly has no companions his age, we never see him in school, and he seems to fade into the background whenever his dad’s temper runs amok. Miles is also married, to a woman who bears the brunt of the stresses of the danger of his job. They know the risks; they see Miles being graceless in the midst of them; and those images are all they’ll be left with when his career — heck, his life — is over. What kind of man does that make Ken Miles, as a husband or a father? And what comes crystal clear through that little boy’s eyes that the story of a renegade can’t capture?
We don’t really get to look through Pearl’s eyes in the aftermath of Little Fires Everywhere, or how the wages of her mom’s odd living weld and warp the bond they build. We see Pearl’s crash course in the complications of living in one place, and we behold the pinpricks that inevitably come as she sews herself into Shaker’s social fabric. But what Pearl actually thinks of her mother by the end of the story, or of the world that the two of them have constructed, or (more importantly) how Pearl will think of the way those things have shaped her — these remain a mystery, a final frontier in Celeste Ng’s mind that never completely enters our line of sight.
At the end of the book, when the wreckage is strewn and every loose end has played out to its fullest extent, Mia’s placed an envelope full of pictures on the table of the apartment she rents from Mrs. Richardson; she expects the Richardsons to take them, and possess them, as though they were little pieces of her heart. It is those pictures — beautifully arranged, terrifically taken — that move Pearl to ask her mother one question, tipped with nearly as much doubt as Miles’ son held when he pestered that mechanic in Ford vs. Ferrari.
“What if those are the pictures that were going to make you famous?”
You’d have to read the book to understand why, but I expected Pearl to be resentful at this point. Teenagers, as a rule, do not slice the most bitter disappointments of their lives with a mournfulness over the future of the person who delivered that disappointment. Usually, they’re mourning their idea of the disappointer, of confidence misplaced. Normal teenagers do not turn moments like this into job interviews for archangel; Pearl is auditioning for archangel. Somehow, even as her mother’s eccentricities and collisions keep turning their world helter-skelter, Pearl can still see the disappointment that forms the magma in Mia’s mountain. Most impressive of all, Pearl can bring herself to care, even after Mia swats down the question and any wanderings towards a better life for either of them.
I can’t help but wonder what Pearl would have done in her adulthood, if Ng had thought to pull that up. Did she leave her mother’s galaxy altogether, take a scholarship to some prestigious university and hightail it to the holly? Did she elect to shine at some state school or JUCO, living out her days as a big fish in some little pond? Or, with time and chance, did the younger Warren find herself clawing for the stability she was long denied, only for her mother’s world (or lack thereof) to absorb Pearl’s own, piecemeal? Only the author knows for sure.
Without that last, crucial detail, of Pearl’s fate as a grownup in the wreckage of her mother’s whims, I wasn’t sure what to make of a story like Little Fires Everywhere. Without a clear picture of Ken Miles’ son, of the man who rose up in such a father’s shadow, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Ford vs. Ferrari. And, without a sightline on the future of a country that has vomited Liz Cheney onto the shores of an exilic island, I’m not entirely sure what to make of her story, either — what it means, or what it even is.
What we do know is this: Liz Cheney didn’t bend to the demands of the former president, or hop into the current of the authoritarian Right, when savvier wheelers and dealers might have tried to swim along. Unlike the characters we’ve come to revere in our narrative art, she was a company woman, sealed to her side’s straight and narrow as if by ground effect. And there came the day when she looked at the lies and compromises that would keep her there, and decided she’d had quite enough.
No, it’s not a storybook ending, or the source material for an all-time great film. But we’ve all had days when we were faced with the choice between doing what was right and doing what was right for us. Those decisions, and what they mean, linger longer than any job.