Friday, January 10, 2014

There is a tide

This novel reminds of recent dystopian movies and books such as Elysium, The Road, Never Let Me Go and Cloud Atlas. Our zeitgeist recognizes the ever accelerating gap between haves and have-nots, and these novels and films reflect that collective consciousness. The gap always existed between the rich and poor worlds, but now it exists within developed countries like the US, threatening broad swathes of the former middle class.
Leonard Lopate Show: Chang-Rae Lee talks about his new novel, On Such a Full Sea, set in a future, when a long-declining America is strictly stratified by class. Abandoned urban neighborhoods have become high-walled, self-contained labor colonies. The members of the labor class work to provide quality produce and fish to elite villages. In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears.

Interestingly, the wealthy dwellers of the Charters allow the top 1 percent of children from the labor colonies to ascend in class. The main character Fan's brother was adopted by a Charter family, and she seeks him out for help. The genomic angle manifests in the disappearance of Fan's love, who is dispatched (for study?) because of a rare mutation that makes him resistant to the still-deadly "C-diseases" (cancer?).

An excerpt from the book.
... When our ancestors were first brought here—the archival vids and pix show them rolling in on fleets of shiny silver company buses—the air was to them fresh and clear, just like in the image of the roofless row house, and when they stepped out, they must have been entranced by the scant briny notes of the harbor waters, breathing them in deep. And think of how startled they might have been by the strange brand of tidiness in this place (once known as Baltimore) and other abandoned cities that settlers were sent to in other eastern and midwestern states, this preservation by dint of absence, such that after they gathered their luggage from the curb and were shuttled by carts to the houses assigned to them, our and your and Fan's forebears among them, their gasps were not of trepidation or disappointment but of gratitude and relief.

Indeed, it's difficult for us to understand how genuinely grateful they were; we glance around B-Mor now and it's impossible to imagine how our people could have felt that way (how time and safety and a filled belly rapidly evolve us!), to be presented with so depleted a cityscape and still have a heart-surge of excitement. The legendary Wen Shurbao, who would be our first and only mayor, reportedly exhorted his brethren by invoking the classic proverb: "Our generation will plant the trees. The next will enjoy the shade."

Surely there were the discontented among those originals, but which of them could deny the promise of this place? Here was an entire community, ready for revitalization. Yes, the houses were basically shells, but in fact many still had roofs and walls and sturdy stairs; yes, few had any boilers, but the majority had salvageable wiring and plumbing; yes, the floors had to be scraped and sanded and refinished, every cabinet and counter scrubbed and disinfected of the leavings of birds and vermin and insects, and yet what activity offers more immediate, honest gratification than shining up a seemingly ruined surface back to the distinctive grain of its essence?

... We should concede that unlike the experience of most immigrants, there was very little to encounter by way of an indigenous population. There were smatterings of them, to be sure, 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, all of whom settled the intimate grid of these blocks and thrived for a time and, for reasons that history can confidently trace and identify but never quite seem to solve, inexorably declined and finally disappeared. Our predecessors had the unique advantage of being husbanded by one of the federated companies, rather than the revolving cast of governmental bodies that overreached in their efforts or were disastrously neglectful, all of them downright clueless. The originals were brought in en masse for a strict purpose but with their work- and family-centric culture intact, such that they would not only endure and eventually profit the seed investors but also prosper in a manner that would be perpetually regenerative.

... Perhaps it was the same with our originals, though in a different circumstance. They went about their first labors, renovating the row houses in the same way, it turns out, that certain antique American communities used to do, the foreman or forewoman of each block marshaling all its residents to converge on one address and revamp, say, the bathrooms or kitchen, the museum clips just like a science class vid of hundreds of ants tugging a sourball-sized rock. You can picture it now. They'd go from one house to the next, right on down the block, this mobile, instantly adaptive assembly line, each person assigned a function, with the children passing beach pails of dust and rubble in a brigade, the elderly offering sips of cool chrysanthemum tea from canteens, even the unwell propped up in chairs close by or even inside the site, so that they might lend moral support or learn by watching. ...
Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3,
Under your pardon. You must note beside,
That we have tried the utmost of our friends,
Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe.
The enemy increaseth every day.
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.


Hacienda said...

LOL. Ridiculous. This will never happen. And Lee is a hack. As are 99.9% of all academic writers.
A contradiction - academics and writing that has any meaning.Jesus, people live in caves.

JorgeVidela said...

yeah. steve sympathizes with this line even though combining the faint
income iq correlation with the parents child correlation makes inherited
ability a very faint cause of intergenerational inequality. much more
important is social reproduction. and the us is an outlier.

is it that intergenerational income elasticity is greater in the us than
the iq income correlation, but in dk it's negligible? one british
rotter made the derisory claim that the uk and america had been
meritocracies longer than other developed countries. 1) this isn't true
and 2) even if it were the difference wouldn't be measurable unless this
formerly soft class structure had existed for centuries. if steve
doesn't believe there is an anglo-american/hereditist ideology this
should be proof.

but there may be some pure breeders for iq. they'd have to be accomplished for many generations though.

this writer may still not get that the poor in the developed world
aren't exploited. they're excluded. they are superfluous.

it is
beyond neo-liberalism's horizon of understanding that when a small
minority of the population can produce everything that everyone needs
and everything that any reasonable person might want exclusion and
permanent recession are inevitable.

Hacienda said...

I think its well understood that the exclusion goes both ways.
Because, the poor in the West can live so well, and can do
almost nothing. At least if you are male.

For young poor women, there is the pressing need to want to escape
the degradation of living in certain poor neighborhoods in the USA.

Certain neighborhoods are intolerable. But the US is large. Lee dramatically calls these
dead zones or zero zones or null zones. Whatever he calls them
for writerly effect. I haven't read the book. I've read about a page
worth of Lee's stuff. At a certain age, you learn what's out there.
Youth calls that being "close-minded". Old sane people know that's just
geography. Once you know the terrain, you don't need to repeat learning it.

A writer like Lee would have excited me when I was in college.
It's all a game.

JorgeVidela said...

oh right. "excluded" wasn't the right word. some exclude themselves and a small % may be born with so little ability that whatever their opportunity they are simply useless.

"if you're a young conservative you don't have a heart. if you're an old liberal you don't have a brain."

Cornelius said...

"The gap always existed between the rich and poor worlds, but now it
exists within developed countries like the US, threatening broad swathes
of the former middle class."

This is a common misconception. The middle class is disappearing because middle class families are moving into higher income brackets. The proportion of lower income households has been relatively static. I would hardly call that a "threat" to the middle class.

JorgeVidela said...

sounds like jive talk to me. what is upper? what is middle? is this saying that 46% of households in 2010 had the same income in constant dollars as the top 29% of households in 1970? is this adjusted with anything better than the cpi? the us is 27th in median household wealth you know. so where's all that income going if there really is more of it?

at the same time a two income household might have to make an effort to stay out of the middle. women enter the workforce and surprise a lot more divorce and bastardy.

LondonYoung said...

The Pew trusts have sponsored a lot of good work on inter-generational income mobility, such as
Well worth reading. Demographically adjusted, social mobility in the U.S. is probably higher than in western europe.

By the way, Steve, when you say "our zeitgeist" does the "our" refer to "professors and occupiers"? ;-)

5371 said...

You really think you can fool all of the people all of the time?

Hacienda said...

What I meant was there's nothing in the sense of actually doing nothing and producing nothing.

Something equivalent to sleeping through life. Which is quite possible in the
USA at a high standard of living- TV, appliances, housing, fast food. Can be attained by begging, opportunistic whoring, banking, being a minister, being kept. housewifing, clerking at 7-Eleven for your Muslim clique.

There's another level which you are talking about. Putting on a show of working,
maybe having to have invested some youthfulness to get the job, but ultimately producing
nothing or being simply evil. Financiers with derivatives or plain criminal 28% loans, most mbas and lawyers, real estate agents belong here.

Professors at a minimum have usefulness in matching cognitive resources and human capital to
intellectual or professional field. Although, they do this less and less well these days. Judging from
the quality of officialdom and public life in the US.

Funny you mention Cabrini-Green. The projects of the South Side of Chicago, like the favelas are mythic places. Looked upon with both contempt and awe.

In Korea, the large TV networks broadcast shows that are akin to the "Daily Life of Amazonians". Koreans live with the Indians for months at a time. The Indians look pretty damn happy.

In the USA, you get tales of the Amazon as told by the National Geographic- "Whitey and science in the Amazon". The Indians appear as stock pieces. Empty and tired. There's nothing remotely truthful about these.

JorgeVidela said...

right. i couldn't find data on race and geography regarding mobility. perhaps this is it. white and asian american median household wealth would put the us in the top five.

but then i wonder how well off are latin america's whites. are 100% european peruvians as well off as americans? the writing is on the wall. the us is headed toward becoming just another new world disaster.

LondonYoung said...

mmmm, hard to compare LatAm w/US because in LatAm being mixed makes you "mixed". But in the U.S., the President is "black". This difference in view infects the research as well ...

JorgeVidela said...

yes. i heard the story of a light skinned rich haitian family moving into the 'burbs and finding out they were as black as yaphet kotto to their neighbors.

but some un guy in the peace corp told my parents the us was farther in race relations than anywhere else. they were stationed in bahia.

JorgeVidela said...

no worries. ly is the type who would thrive anywhere, even in n korea. he's kudzu. if he were n korean he'd never have heard of rand but would worship the great leader, the dear leader, and the wise leader.

Rudel said...

"i don't think living in a trailer park in alabama is better than living on fish and coconuts in vanuatu."

Dude living in Alabama is waaaaaaaaaay worse that living on fish and cocoanuts in Vanuatu. The surf there is off the charts! Plus Vanuatu has wifi for all us savages.

Mary Wilkin said...

When it comes to tides, our vanuatu sport fishing is what I remember. Me and my dad actually had so much fun when we experienced that last year. Hope we can repeat it this year!

EmyAugustus said...

I *just* finished reading this book! I liked the cover art design better than the actual story, which felt a bit too abstract and detached to me. My main takeaway from it - that even when people achieve a state of wealth, they just wind up being bored with nowhere else to go. So, summed up by the Shakespeare quote "We, at the height, are ready to decline".

Did you like the book? It seems from your selected quotes that you were more interested in its fictional description of the immigrant experience.

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