I cannot imagine a more appropriate time to read Lee’s latest novel. Set in a future version of Baltimore, called B-Mor, it represents a logical outcome of the tensions currently tearing the city apart. We have the story of the B-Mor community and we have the story of one young woman, Fan, who leaves B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has disappeared, apparently removed by the powers that be for their own purposes.
A hundred years before the story begins an entire village was brought from New China to populate the desolate city, abandoned by all except a few “pockets of residents on the outskirts of what is now the heart of B-Mor, these descendants of nineteenth-century African slaves and twentieth-century laborers from Central America and even bands of twenty-first-century urban-nostalgics. . .”
B-Mor is now one of a string of settlements privately owned and run for profit. The B-Mor population grows vegetables and fish under strict controls, as their lives are lived under strict controls, where spitting in public is a major crime. The food they produce goes to the people who live in Charter villages. As in today’s Charter schools, residents are protected from the sordid reality of the common herd, insulated by their extreme wealth. Outside of the settlements and the Charter villages lie the Counties, a wild and dangerous place with no law or government protection.
I had to ask myself how different this was from today’s society, where first-world people like me often live off products produced under dire conditions in third-world countries, when much of government seems to abdicate its responsibility to, er, govern instead of just lining their own pockets.
The complacency of the people in B-Mor amused me, because Baltimore today is known for neighborhoods where people have lived their whole lives.
Stability is all here in B-Mor; it’s what we ultimately produce, day by night by day, both what we grow for consumption and how we are organized in neighborhood teams, the bonds of blood or sexual love relied upon equally to support out constitution. In this difficult era the most valuable commodity is the unfailing turn of the hours and how they retrieve for us the known harbor of yesterday . . .
Much of the novel is written in this first person plural point of view (we, us). For much of the book, chapters alternate between this collective voice and a more traditional telling of Fan’s adventures. Later the two become more intertwined. The collective voice holds the reader at a distance, giving us no assurance that the story told us about Fan is anything more than rumor and urban myth.
Both Fan and Reg are described as innocent. But what they really are is independent, especially Fan. She is able to walk away from the stable collective of family and work and neighborhood, able even to set off into the wild Counties, without a backward look. As one person in my book club noted, Fan’s individualism is set against her hometown’s collective uniformity, just as the U.S. culture is set against China’s. Some of us fear that just such a culture war is brewing.
How likely is the future described in Lee’s book? Very, I would say, if we continue down our current path. Cities like Baltimore and Detroit will become even more hollowed out as those who can afford it leave to get away from the crime caused by illegal drugs, in turn caused by the poverty and lack of opportunity for a huge chunk of the population: today’s ever-growing inequality carried to a logical conclusion. This country has been declining since 2000, with jobs lost overseas, financial crises caused by overweening greed on the part of bankers, and revenue-sapping wars fought solely to benefit the wealthy few.
The recent peaceful protests in Baltimore grew out of the inequities and injustices. Yes, there was a little violence initially caused by drunken white baseball fans and blown out of proportion by the media, followed the next day by a scandalous overreaction by the city that dumped hordes of scared teens, unsure of how they would get home, into the waiting arms of equally scared police.
The violent minority has been overwhelmed by the majority of citizens who immediately turned out to clean up and help affected residents and store owners. Citizens marched and congregated in flashpoint areas to maintain calm. Even my local district police captain told us, “A valuable lesson was learned for me – the deterrent from the community appeared to be greater than the deterrent of law enforcement.” Now if he can just make the rest of the police force and the city government understand that, we might see some progress.
Fan’s self-assertion causes a wave of resistance and rebellion among the people she left behind. Does it last or does everyone sink back into complacency? What will happen in Baltimore and other struggling communities? Will complacency win out or will the demand for change continue?