A harrowing and fully imagined vision of dystopian America from Lee, who heretofore has worked in a more realist mode.
Lee’s oeuvre is largely made up of novels about Asians assimilating into American society (The Surrendered, 2010, etc.), and in many regards, this one is no different. Its hero is Fan, a young woman of Chinese descent who leaves her native Baltimore to find her disappeared lover, Reg. However, the near-future America she travels through is catastrophically going off the rails: The wealthy (or “Charters”) live in protected communities, the lawless “counties” are highly dangerous, while those like Fan in the struggling middle live and work in highly regimented communities designed to serve the Charters’ needs. (Fan worked in a fishery in Baltimore, renamed B-Mor.) Typical of dystopian literary novels, the circumstances that brought the country to this ugly pass aren’t clear (though social concerns about the environment and carcinogens are high). What Lee adds to the genre is his graceful, observant writing, as well as a remarkably well-thought-out sense of how crisis stratifies society and collapses morality. As Fan travels north from B-Mor, she encounters or hears about people who are actively brokering or sacrificing human life to survive. Lee’s imagination here is at once gruesome and persuasive: A family of circus-type performers who kill people and feed them to their dogs, a cloistered Charter housewife with a group of adopted children who are never allowed to leave their rooms, a doctor who accepts poor patients only to the extent they’re willing to prostitute themselves to him. The potency and strangeness of these characters never diminish the sense that Lee has written an allegory of our current predicaments, and the narration, written in the collective voice of B-Mor, gives the novel the tone of a timeless and cautionary fable.
Welcome and surprising proof that there’s plenty of life in end-of-the-world storytelling.