Author: Chang-rae Lee
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: December 2015
Is there any room left for mythical figures in our collective consciousness? Not the Poseidon or Paul Bunyan type, but the Einstein or Lincoln ones, real people inflated to something much more than themselves by the world around them.
Chang-rae Lee posits that this type of person could exist in a world not so far in the future from our own, when the populace is divided into roughly three kinds of living situations. The Charter communities are elite, fine-tuned cities inhabited by the super-rich, who strive for perfection to be able to stay inside their borders. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the barely livable “open counties,” wild west outposts linked together by potholed roads. In between are areas like B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) which have been revitalized as a sort-of middle class made up of shipped-in foreigners, whose modest yet safe life is made possible by their work in creating products for the Charters.
It’s from such a place that Fan emerges. She is several generations descended from the Chinese people who set up B-Mor under the order of “the directorate,” a vague governmental organization that exerts control over the operations of the community. Fan is raised as a tank diver, a respectable position that involves curating fish grown for food for B-Mor itself as well places beyond its walls. Stability and a strong communal essence are what bind the town, where “routine is the method, and the reason, and the reward.” But when Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, one day disappears without a word, she decides to simply walk out of her home and venture into the beyond.
Lee’s talent is in painting an elaborate portrait of a plausible world, told in oral history style from an unnamed B-Mor resident (or perhaps multiple residents—there’s a lot of “we” and “us” in the narration). Despite the citizens’ lifestyle limitations, the control they are under is never so heavy-handed that their situation can be labeled simply a dystopia. The various societies do function, if imperfectly, and Fan’s departure sparks a wave of reflection and a growth of gray areas. One of the author’s theses is laid out as early as page three:
More and more we can see that the question is not whether we are “individuals.” We can’t help but be, this has been proved, case by case. We are not drones or robots and never will be. The question, then, is whether being an “individual” makes a difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.
Fan is an individual who inspires action, or at least reaction, in most people she comes in contact with. Her mission is unclear and her motives only guessed at, but people are drawn to her centeredness. Her journey takes her from the open counties to a Charter town, and she unwittingly affects people along the way, while also being pulled about by a current of external events. To those new in her life she is a peculiarity, and they seem to want to draw her into whatever strange family they have cobbled together in a harsh world. To those back home, she is becoming the myth.
In a style that eschews traditional dialogue and steeps itself in philosophical questions directed at the reader, Lee continually examines how people live. How can our current ambitions translate into a more demanding world? What is the legacy of generational impact? Is there something to be said for segregating communities based on commodity tasks, if at least the average life lived is reasonably free of pain? The floating narrator returns to the push and pull of what a person needs versus what a people need:
Moment to moment we act freely, we make decisions and form opinions and there is very little to throttle us. We think each of us has a map marked with private routings and preferred habitual destinations, and go by a legend of our own. Yet it turns out you can overlay them and see a most amazing correspondence; what you believed were very personal contours aligning not exactly but enough that while our points may diverge, our endings do not.
The whole book is about the landscapes of our lives: the constantly churning layers that form us from the inside out, and the external, deliberate structures we create to stay fed, productive, and connected. In a proposed era with few options for adventure and discovery, the tradeoff could be longer stretches of complacence and tranquility. But still…
Certain wider questions can needle if you let them: How did this ecology come to be? Is it the one we wish to endure?
Many of Lee’s characters endure, but barely. It’s unclear to what degree each of their paths is carved by internal versus external conditions. Of course it’s a complex interplay of both, and without a blueprint for achieving the perfect balance, maybe all we can do is tell stories about those who rode the waves to their fame or their doom.
Cover art corner: When I first noticed this one popping up on the new hardcover tables, I kept seeing the phrase “Sea Change.” I tripped over the title every time. But this is a great layout overall: the brushstrokes have texture, the depiction of Fan’s hair relates directly to a plot point about a piece of evolving artwork, and the obscured face reinforces the concept of a character known only through the stories told about her.