New York: Random House, NY, NY, 2019
352 pp. Paper, $17.00
Claes Oldenburg, who was born in Sweden and brought to the United States as a child, once proposed a monument to American immigrants consisting of an underwater reef in New York’s harbour. As ships entered, they would be destroyed. Each wrecked ship would add to the monument.
Joanne Ramos, a Filipino-American, was also brought to the U.S. as a child. In The Farm she spins an all-too-believable tale about a surrogacy-for-profit corporate venture that caters to the ultra-rich. Most of the surrogates are immigrants who agree to carry others’ babies for desperately-needed money. While pregnant the women live at Golden Oaks, a luxurious country estate somewhere outside New York city. There they receive excellent food and care, but are constantly monitored, cut off from families and friends, and, as gradually becomes clear, virtual prisoners.
The mastermind behind all this is Mae Yu, a Chinese immigrant’s daughter who has climbed the corporate ladder high enough to wear the latest designer clothes and occasionally lunch with her boss. One of the truly rich, he endorses her project by saying it gives him a hard-on.
Mae has a web of contacts who direct candidates for surrogacy her way. After interviewing them and arranging medical and psychological evaluations, she introduces the chosen ones to life at Golden Oaks.
We don’t meet clients. They inhabit a world so remote it may as well be another planet. Surrogates speculate that their clients are physically incapable of pregnancy because of infertility or age, or because they find pregnancy inconvenient, but we never learn for sure. Few clients seek relationships with the women who carry their babies (all of whom are conceived in vitro and have no biological relationship to their surrogate mothers.) We are left with the suspicion that many of the children are vanity projects.
Golden Oaks at first appears to be a sparkly dystopia on the order of the pretty parts of Brave New World or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Many of Mae’s clients are racists, so Golden Oaks may also bring to mind the idyllic rural retreats established by Nazis to incubate out-of-wedlock Aryan children fathered by members of the German forces. In The Farm evil is omnipresent but out-of-focus. Women choose to be surrogates and are well cared for. The money they earn is badly needed. Part of the fascination of the novel is how its great tensions and contradictions will be resolved.
The novel concludes like countless TV dramas that engage controversial issues and ask important questions but in the end veer off into banalities. Mae realizes she was mistaken not to let surrogates see their families. Visits are essential for the surrogates’ peace of mind - and for the optimal functioning of Golden Oaks. She never questions the project itself, or the corporate world she serves.
Jane, the Philippine surrogate we have come to know best and admire, in part for daring to challenge restrictions at Golden Oaks, becomes a nanny to Mae’s baby. This is not framed as social perversion, but as a mutually beneficial relationship. Mae is freed of mundane motherly chores to run Golden Oaks, while Jane gains steady employment and a spacious apartment above Mae’s garage. More important, Jane’s young daughter will have a chance to be accepted into an exclusive elementary school because of Mae’s contacts.
The conclusion may realistically reflect the hopes of many immigrants in America today, but is inconsistent with the novel as a whole, which in spite of realistic details, is speculative fiction. According to Ramos, The Farm was inspired by reports of surrogacy projects that already exist in India, but Golden Oaks is a construct of Ramos’s imagination.
It is a brilliant construct. The novel is a timely warning cut off by a superficially happy ending. Exactly where the trajectory of Ramos’s story might have gone we can only speculate. Could it have interrogated old American dreams of arrival? The closest Ramos comes to engaging the New Jerusalem, American exceptionalism, and the hopes for social justice that they nurture, is by having women of color be beneficiaries of Golden Oaks and not merely its victims. Mae succeeds because she is willing to exploit other women, irrespective of color. Whether this is cynicism, realism, or something else entirely is difficult to say. By focusing too narrowly on immigrants’ ordinary, understandable hopes for material betterment and opportunities for the next generation, this remarkable novel crashes into Oldenburg’s underwater reef.