On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee boldly exhibits a quality its heroine embodies: freedom of imagination. In Lee’s futuristic United States, labor colonies are the oppressive yet not unpleasant norm. Fan, a 16-year-old tank diver, becomes the only person to willfully leave the safety of her settlement when her boyfriend Reg disappears. Their home, B-Mor (formerly Baltimore), is the bayside community that produces contaminant-free fish to supply Charter villages, where futuristic elite reside in relative ease and abundance. In her quest to find Reg, Fan becomes a legend to those left behind.
This type of storytelling represents a departure for Lee, who has built an award-winning, best-selling reputation on excellence in lyrical realism (Native Speaker, The Surrendered). The novel he set out to write, his fifth, was a socialist treatment of modern China’s ascendancy from an American point of view—a far cry from the visionary dystopian adventure it became.
“Usually I’m taking what we know and going into the inner space of that, trying to draw out internal details about a familiar world,” Lee says. “Creating other worlds and cultures was a lot of fun for me. That kind of rendering and free association was quite different—although I’m interested in a lot of the same questions.” Lee is a first-generation Korean-American whose family settled in Westchester, N.Y., when he was 3 years old. His work often questions how new locations and communities can revise a person’s sense of self.
The post-lapsarian colonies are populated primarily by descendants of Chinese immigrants, their homeland polluted and uninhabitable. Between the repurposed metropolises and the Charters are lawless counties, where Fan begins her search. The counties are dangerous lands where people barter their bodies and children to receive off-the-grid services, such as medical care from a former Charter veterinarian. Reg, a gentle, gawky vegetable tender, disappeared after being called into the B-Mor manager’s office, and modern medicine may be responsible: Reg is determined by routine scan to be “C-free,” while all the Charters suffer from some type of “C-illness.” As Lee writes, “While really no one could or would say where this Reg was, including someone very high up in the directorate, it was clear he’d become a primary object of curiosity for the very pharmacorp that was buying Asimil,” a new C-fighting drug. Thus this ordinary man may have extraordinary value for those with the means to exploit it.
Class division is just one anxious preoccupation of the allegorical narrative. More so than in his previous books, “I’m much more interested…in contemporary political and social questions, about class and divisions in society,” Lee says. “I don’t know that I think of On Such a Full Sea as a political novel—I don’t, and I never wrote it that way—but I think those concerns came through much more than in my previous works.”
He continues: “We’re being revised by the ability and reach of new economic powers, China foremost. You see so many signs of a certain decline and slowdown of American prosperity, this shrinking middle class, a kind of winner-take-all economic culture, and I saw...a sense of decline that one could not ignore or explain away.”
Emphasizing the communal experience, the story is told entirely by “we,” the nameless ones who remain in B-Mor. At first they are stunned by Fan’s willful departure, but as their understanding grows, so, too, does their admiration of her heretofore inconceivable act. It’s no slight achievement that these people begin to wonder, to hope, and, especially, to question authority and their own trodden paths. Enlightened by the tale’s end, they say: “[A]s we know, it is ‘where we are’ that should make all the difference, whether we believe we belong there or not, and as such is the ground on which we will try our best not to feel trapped, or limited, or choose those paths that merely assuage our fears,” Lee writes.
Lee briefly considered handing the reins to Fan but decided against the traditional first-person narration. “The opposite of Fan would be some picturesque hero who’s just constantly superfunny and clever or emotional or something like that—but we really go through the ups and downs of every little moment of their consciousness,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in that. I didn’t want us to focus on that movement of consciousness. I wanted us to focus on a larger consciousness.”
Readers come to know Fan not through innermost thoughts but through action, and there are plenty of ups and downs to spur her. The narrative is rife with intense reversals of fortune that make for swiftly turning pages. Upon plunging into the dangerous unknown of the counties, Fan is immediately hit by a speeding car. Her saviors seem sinister. They all fall into the clutches of a murderous family of acrobats—and that’s just an amuse-bouche. Fan does not escape every injustice, but her handling of fate’s cruel twists is a testament to her preternatural devotion and the unwavering faith that she will find Reg alive and well.
Fan is different from Lee’s previous protagonists. “She’s someone who brings out the wants of other people, whose presence makes others want to reveal or clarify themselves,” Lee says. “She brings out the bizarre, she brings out hope, she brings out all these kinds of reactions from people.” Steady as a steamer, she advances on her quest, inspiring her rapt countrymen to embrace the suggestion inherent in their city’s name—to be more.
“[T]he funny thing about a life is how eventually it will adhere to certain routines of mind, those tracks or grooves laid down in special pressure and heat,” Lee writes. In sparking this recognition, Fan lights a fire in her people that has the potential to incinerate their complacency.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.