“Why, in the life of a community, does a certain happening or person become the stuff of lore?”
Chang-Rae Lee’s latest novel On Such a Full Sea is so suffused with questions of social appraisal and philosophy that it often reads as a time-shifted inversion of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale epilogue. Whereas Atwood’s academics assess her lapsed vision of America with the detachment of scholarly research, Lee’s nameless, chorus-like narration stings with the immediacy of communal resolve. On Such a Full Sea is a dystopic adventure story, similar to Atwood’s own recent MaddAddam trilogy, but it is also not. It is a fable, and a fable about the power of fables. Of all the rhetorical queries posed by the citizens of Lee’s downtrodden labor colony of B-Mor (née Baltimore), it is the above that treads closest to becoming something like a thesis.
The focus of Full Sea’s attention lies with Fan, a waifish nineteen-year-old fishery worker who departs B-Mor in pursuit of her boyfriend Reg—kidnapped, we are told, by a sort of governmental-pharmaceutical cartel. Fan’s journey from her blue-collar hometown through the anarchic Appalachian backwoods of the “open counties” to the gated McSuburban “Charter” villages of the wealthy is recounted (perhaps with questionable accuracy) through the filter of B-Mor folk legend. It is a legend, Lee’s unknown speaker tells us, that has been told “many times over, in messages and postings and vids and songs,” a legend resonant enough to divide the novel between the there and back again of Fan’s travels and long passages of plaintive reflection by those she left.
For Lee, who has achieved earlier success with his PEN-winning debut Native Speaker (1995) and the Pulitzer-nominated The Surrendered (2011), this is a first and unexpected foray into speculative fiction, and he does not waste words doting on the trappings of world-building. Rather, the story of B-Mor is told in whispers and half-histories. The terrors of our age—global warming, economic stratification, bird flu, swine flu and a growing cancer epidemic—become the foggy origins of Fan’s environment. Lee dangles these threats over his readers just enough to dot the line between our time and hers, but never enough to fill it, wisely swapping outright satire for unnerving parallels.
Yet perhaps Lee’s finest speculative touch is seen in his portrayal of a resettled Chinese population on the American continent, a wholly believable hodgepodge of Anglo/Sino names and traditions co-existing long after the boundaries that once separated these nations have collapsed. Like Henry Park in Native Speaker, the reader becomes caught between cultures. We are cognizant of the way Fan’s America resembles our own, but put off by its sudden foreignness—a challenging balance to maintain even in the best of dystopian literature.
As Fan is bought, sold, traded and adopted across class strata, advancing from one trial to the next, her cult status among B-Mors only deepens, eventually touching off a quiet civic rebellion. Fan and Reg are immortalized through anti-government murals, peaceful street protests and even novelty toys and bubblegum pop music, inspiring B-Mor to literally be more. To cop a term from another popular tale of a nightmare future, she is their Mockingjay.
By Full Sea’s end, it becomes doubtful that any great revolution will manifest, but that is beside the point, as is Fan’s knowledge of her celebrity. Indeed, by the narrator’s own admission, Fan is a nebulous hero, single-minded in her aim, apolitical at best and oblivious at worst. Her symbolic hold on B-Mor is derived not from her personality, but from her act of leaving. This is the most convincing aspect of Lee’s image of a world gone wrong: the loneliness. His B-Mors are indentured citizens, “obliged by every day charges and tasks… find[ing] world enough in a frame.” It is in leaving home, casting off drudgery and routine and forsaking known devils for unknown dangers, that Fan ascends to heroism.
On Such a Full Sea is a remarkable invention, shifting between soft science fiction and hard explorations of legend and the monomyth. Lee’s surgical prose and strong sense of detail help offset his few dull missteps, culminating in a twist-laden ending that satisfies on all levels. It’s early yet, but it is difficult to imagine On Such a Full Sea failing to emerge as one of the finest novels of 2014 and a highlight of Lee’s impressive career.