Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel doesn’t disappoint
“On Such a Full Sea” (Riverhead Books), by Chang-rae Lee
Inside the confines of B-Mor, a strictly regimented labor colony populated by the descendants of immigrant workers from Asia, the story of 16-year-old Fan carries the weight of legend. As recounted by the people of B-Mor, Fan’s journey outside the walls of her community, an adventure rife with peril and opportunity, travails and triumphs, has the feel of a myth told and retold over generations.
Like myth, it has been embellished and molded over time, carved to fit the changing tides of society and the rising and waning hopes of the teller. It is, by turns, a source of hope and a cautionary tale for those who dare to want more than society allows.
Fan’s quest also serves as the vehicle for Chang-rae Lee’s latest exploration of identity and personhood, of assimilation and cultural shifts, of love, loneliness and betrayal. Unlike Lee’s previous novels, which mined real events and personal experiences to burrow into those themes, his latest, “On Such a Full Sea,” is set in a dystopian future about 150 years from now.
It is a future made up of a highly stratified society broken into a lower class consigned to scrapping for survival in the wild and lawless “open counties” and a middle class that lives and works in labor facilities such as B-Mor (once known as Baltimore), where the inhabitants’ existence is centered around the task of growing fish and vegetables consumed by a hedonistic and uncaring upper class residing in the affluent “Charter villages.”
In Lee’s imagined world, the classes are separated by wide gulfs of education and opportunity and life is stalked by the specter of C-illness, a disease that strikes most of the population, and the struggle for health care. It is also a place remade by immigrants, the former population of China, who were imported en masse to work in blighted industrial cities like B-Mor and D-Troy (Detroit) after their country was made unlivable by pollution and smog. It is an alarming yet familiar vision, close enough to our present society to stir discomfort.
But there are signs that the carefully calibrated structure is crumbling. First, there is the disappearance from B-Mor of Fan’s boyfriend, the harmless but well-liked Reg, who it is rumored is “C-free.” Then, the abrupt departure of Fan herself, who sets off into the ominous “counties” to find her missing beau. The absence of the couple looms large in B-Mor, becoming the focus of conjecture and a growing dissent.
“Our Fan,” as the collective narrator calls the novel’s heroine, is in many ways a blank slate. As she searches for Reg, and later on, a brother who has been elevated to the Charters, Fan does not so much hurtle toward her own destiny as bide her time. “If she possessed a genius — and a growing number of us think she did — it was a capacity for understanding and trusting the improvisational nature of her will,” Lee writes. “As we have come to realize, she was not one to hold herself back. Or to be fettered. In this way, she startles us, inspires us.”
As the narrator notes, the people of B-Mor are both enthralled and frightened by Fan’s trek outside the borders of the orderly, yet restrictive, society. Even as they envy her adventures, they quiver at the traumas that befall her. Like so many of the characters Fan encounters in Lee’s dystopian world, they seem to cling to their familiar prisons rather than embrace a freedom that offers uncertainty as well as autonomy.
Before Fan slips out of B-Mor, she utters a phrase that is dissected and deconstructed by those left behind: “Where you are.” Was it a riddle? A clue to her destination? A philosophical treatise? Perhaps it is a message from Lee to his readers. Like all good dystopian literature, perhaps Fan’s story is more about where we are — a society of growing income inequality, climate change, culture clashes and health care gaps — and where we might be going.