Disconnection and Family in “Nights When Nothing Happened”

Stories about immigrant families often leverage the familiar themes of isolation, cultural displacement, and intergenerational conflict. Simon Han’s Nights When Nothing Happened draws in all of these elements but with a distinctive twist: that a family itself can lose its identity, or in the case of the Chengs, may need to start over and build an entirely new one.

Set in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, the story opens with the Cheng’s five-year-old daughter Annabel sleepwalking during the night. Her older brother Jack, who spent his first six years in China being raised by grandparents, discovers her outside and coaxes her back home. The sleepwalking remains their secret, hidden from their parents, Liang and Patty, who are too preoccupied with their financial and marital problems to notice. Patty is a once-promising electrical engineer who came to the U.S. as a student and was forced to suspend her Ph.D. studies to take a low-level job to afford to reunite Jack with the family and pay for Annabel’s prestigious preschool. Liang is an unsuccessful photographer whose clients would rather rent out his studio and take their own pictures than use his services. Liang is deeply troubled, prone to insomnia and sometimes violent night terrors, and haunted by his mother’s suicide and father’s alcoholism. Liang himself drinks heavily, muddling his way through taking care of Jack and Annabel while Patty spends long hours at work, his only respite derived from a weekly poker game with the men of the handful of other Chinese families in their community. 

All four of the Chengs live with a sense of pending doom, waiting for something to break, for the “bad thing” to happen. Han takes his time getting the reader to that place, but when the “bad thing” does happen, during a Thanksgiving gathering hosted by the Chengs, the precarious threads that connect the family unravel quickly. Liang moves out of the house and Patty lies to the children about his absence, telling them that their father has been summoned to China to receive a prestigious photography award. China represents a past that Jack has put behind him, and for Annabel, it is a place she has never seen but associates with the “dragon-breath fires of eternal punishment.” “Can you hear them?” Annabel asks her classmates, “Can you hear them screaming down there?”

Narrated in the third person, each chapter is told from a different family member’s point of view. Han skillfully creates enough disconnection between them to make the individual voices distinctive without losing the story’s continuity. The person that the other family members see is very different from how the point-of-view characters see themselves. For example, Annabel is unquestionably innocent in her mother’s eyes and her father’s greatest joy, yet Annabel reveals a disturbing cruel streak to which she seems oblivious. Liang seems disappointed that he is not close to his son, yet Jack wants a relationship with Liang as badly as Liang wanted one with his own father.

Han captures the struggle of an immigrant family in a predominantly white community who want the American dream despite a sense that the American dream doesn’t necessarily want them. He depicts racism is subtle but biting ways, such as when the mother of Annabel’s white playmate Elsie expresses surprise that Annabel was “born here,” and when a teacher, hearing rumors spread by the other school children that Annabel squashes bunnies with her feet and drinks pig’s blood, implies that her purported  behavior is attributable to her being Chinese. “’Every culture is unique,’ she tells Annabel. ‘I don’t want to assume anything about yours.’” The sense of alienation from their community compounds the detachment they feel from each other.

Patty is stuck in a demanding job that seems below her capabilities and prevents her from being home with her family, while Liang is underemployed and a social outcast. Furthermore, other than the bond between the children, there is little refuge for any of them within the family unit. More than their frequent arguments and Patty’s constant criticism of Liang, Jack is deeply troubled by the silence that has fallen between his parents, “a louder silence, as if they were screaming through the house, HEAR HOW SILENT WE ARE!” Even when the family gets past its crisis point and their relationships begin to stabilize, they seem destined to maintain their detachment. As Patty surmises, “perhaps their foursome would always appear a contradiction to others,” a family identity grounded in differences rather than intimacy.

There are slow pockets in the first half of the novel, during which the significance of Annabel’s sleepwalking, Patty’s workaholism, and Jack’s unrelenting stoicism are not entirely clear. Then the novel picks up pace. The Thanksgiving dinner scenes are particularly outstanding; the awkward interactions are wonderfully written with a few touches of rare humor, and the suspense-building is masterful. After that point, the story becomes much clearer, and the reader begins to share the hopelessness the family is experiencing. It is not a happy family story, but it is nonetheless a satisfying one, full of introspection, the fragility created by self-doubt realistically depicted. Han’s story shows that with the American dream come many restless nights – and the occasional nightmare.

Nights When Nothing Happened
By Simon Han
Riverhead Books
November 17, 2020