”It couldn’t have been just Reg she had gone to search out. She had no real leads as to where he might be, or if he was even alive. So why would any sane person leave our cloister for such uncertainties? He was the impetus, yes, the veritable without which, but not the whole story. One person or thing can never comprise that, no matter how much one is cherished, no matter how much one is loved. A tale, like the universe, they tell us, expands ceaselessly each time you examine it, until there’s finally no telling exactly where it begins, or ends, or where it places you now.”
Vincent Van Gogh’s Branches with Almond Blossomscan be found on the wall of almost every B-Mor household.
Fan lives in the B-Mor colony formerly known as Baltimore. It is a high walled, safe community made up primarily of people of Chinese descent who were brought over, out of the ruins of their country, to raise fish for the Charter Communities. "It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore." The Charters live in elite villages that ring the labor colonies (repurposed suburbs) of the communities that grow their food. Beyond the walls of these villages lie the Open Counties of which little is known, but much is feared.
Fan is a fish tank diver. She cleans the tanks and retrieves the dead. She lives in a house of her extended family. ”...in the thinly partitioned row house back in B-Mor, her uncles and aunties and cousins pitching their nightly calls in a an unmelodious orchestration that heralded her blood” She pairs with Reg, a gangly, tall, young man not particularly good at anything, but such a beautiful soul that everyone adores him.
Reg disappears without a word, without a trace.
No ones knows where he is. Fan asks questions, but as she moves up the chain of command the answers become more and more nebulous and dismissive.
Fan has an inkling, I do believe, because she poisons the fish tanks that were her responsibility before she strikes out in search of her man. This was an act of defiance that had no precedent in the history of the community. She goes into the lawless country and leaves in her wake the beginnings of a revolution. Her odyssey becomes a fixation for her community as any story of her travels is amplified throughout the community, and added to her growing legend.
”Suddenly all the sturdy engineering and constructing, from the originals to now, feels as though it’s been resting upon an insufficient base, the same way a thoroughly elaborate and convincing dream can hinge upon an entirely impossible premise, which, once examined, exposes the rest as a mirage. The pilings are dust, the slab of matrix of silken spiderwebbing, and the very place we reside, our narrow row houses that have stood stalwartly wall-to-wall through a checkered history of caring and neglect, are but cells in a chimera, some bloodless being in whose myth we have believed too deeply and too long.”
After a cataclysmic event it would not be difficult to convince people to exchange their personal liberties for a steady supply of food, shelter, and safety. Who wouldn’t take it and actually be grateful for the opportunity? The thing is people in the future are going to be the same as people were in the past and the same as they are in the present. Eventually we are always going to reach a point where we will want more.
The Charters do allow the top 1.2% of children from the labor communities to ascend to their villages. They are adopted by Charter families and allowed to become full members of the community. Frankly, it is brilliant, you strengthen your own community and continue to deplete the people from the gene pool of the labor communities that would be most likely to take stock of their life and decide things had to change. (This reminds me of the decades old policy of the United States to steal the very best and brightest from all over the world by dangling citizenship before them, and convincing them that their contributions to society will be better rewarded in the United States. We become stronger and the communities they come from become weaker in the process.) These bright children from B-Mor and from other labor communities are assimilated and made to feel special. Their claws are pared before they can grow into something that could be used to slash.
Fan’s brother was one of those bright children who became a Charter member. She realizes that if she has any hope of finding Reg she first has to find her brother.
She begins by navigating the lawless Open Counties and almost before her odyssey starts it is nearly ended as she is sideswiped by a speeding vehicle. Now fortunately for her she is hit by possibly the only person in the Open Counties that can heal her wounds. His name is Quig. He is a veterinarian by trade, a disgraced Charter citizen who now makes his living helping the sick and the wounded...for a price. His story, as it it revealed to us, is tragic.
”Fan looked up but in the dimness and rain could just make out the contours of his face under the dark shadow of his baseball cap’s bill. He was bearded and had a wide frame to his jaw, and his nose looked like it had been broken multiple times, and the expression in his eyes was that of someone who has seen the worst of the life and would not be disturbed to see whatever measure more.”
He will heal her, feed her, and keep her until he figures out what to do with her.
He trades her to Miss Cathy and Mister Leo, a Charter family. Now when is anything what it seems. On the surface their household seems normal, but there are strange things behind the curtain. There are seven girls of various ages living on the top floor of this house. They have all been bartered for from the Open Counties.
They have all been raped by Mister Leo.
Miss Cathy was raped as a child, and in some sick fashion the girls are all slices of her shattered self suspended in life, regardless of their age, at the point of when her trauma occurred. She is complicit in their molestation.
”Some were grown women, twice as broad as the youngest. But something was different about all of them, and not just that they had grown old. All of their eyes were huge and shaped in the same way, half-moons set on the straight side, like band shells but darkened, their pupils being brown. They were all giggling now, shoulders scrunched, their high pitch cutesy and saccharine. They crowded about Fan, bright of teeth. They smelled laundered and dryer-fresh. And now one of them was gently touching her face, others her hair, the rest clasping her arms, her hands, already vining themselves through her, snatching Fan up.”
Fan is stoic, certainly courageous, through all her trials and tribulations. She is petite and quiet, a person easily overlooked. People sense something more in her that is larger than her size, something powerful. Chang-Rae Lee paints a world where on the surface you might think any one of these places is a utopia, but as you dig deeper you discover they are really all dystopias. There are benefits, despite the problems, to all three segments of this universe and I’m still not sure, if I were to find myself in this world, which scenario I would strive to call my home. Fan’s journey gives Lee the means to show us the layers of his creation, a real look at one possible future. This is the first book I’ve read by Lee, but it will most certainly not be my last. He holds a mirror up. It is our responsibility to look into our own eyes.