Reviewed by Ariel Gordon
On Such a Full Sea
by Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead Books, 368 pages, $33
American novelist Chang-rae Lee writes what could be called Ivy League fiction.
After doing an MFA at Yale, his first novel, 1995's Native Speaker, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Since then, on top of his work teaching creative writing at Princeton, Lee has written a book every four or five years, which culminated in a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2010 for The Surrendered.
Lee's most recent book, the dystopian On Such a Full Sea, represents a departure for the Korean-born writer.
Having written about the intersections of class and race in books that referenced Korean comfort women during the Second World War (A Gesture Life) and orphanages in post-Korean War South Korea (The Surrendered), Lee has abandoned specific histories for imagined ones, and race for class.
This shift is front and centre in the book's opening passage: "It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone."
So, instead of the United States of America, we have the Association of Charter Villages, run by multinational corporations instead of governments.
The villages are home to the upper class and ultra-rich. Middle-class people live in directorates, which are basically company towns, producing goods for Charter citizens such as fish raised in tanks and vegetables cultivated in greenhouses.
On Such a Full Sea's main characters, a young couple named Fan and Reg, were born and raised in B-Mor, a directorate assigned to a group of immigrants from China, which is close to the Charter village Seneca.
Though there are few perks in the directorates, there is the security of (crowded) housing and (increasingly limited) medical care. Lower-class people live in the open counties, where there are no illusions: If you can't afford something, you try to take it by force.
A cynical reader would note here that this state of affairs isn't that different from our current circumstances... but what is different is that the citizens of Lee's imagined world all eventually contract C, or cancer.
And Reg, a gangly 19-year-old gardener, is somehow C-free. When medical tests reveal this fact, he is whisked away by administrators.
Fan, a diminutive 16-year-old tank-diver, resolves to find him and leaves B-Mor for the outlands. She doesn't have any inkling where he might be, but leaving seems to be a logical first step.
She spends the rest of the novel moving in the opposite direction from most upwardly mobile Association residents: from B-Mor to the outlands to Seneca, a Charter village.
Interestingly, although Fan spends little to no time in B-Mor, her story is narrated by a directorate resident who prefers the first-person plural. He is the one who describes the ins and outs of Association society, who reflects on the changes to B-Mor after the disappearance of Reg and the departure of Fan, and who tries to make sense of all their lives.
So the question remains: is On Such a Full Sea a fully formed dystopia? A fully formed fiction?
While Lee's imagined world has some interesting flourishes and some ingenious ideas, it never coalesces into a completely convincing whole.
And while it is masterfully written, in Lee's trademark formal diction and elaborate, slightly overwritten sentences, ultimately we know Fan and Reg the way our anonymous narrator does: by name and in passing.
Although On Such a Full Sea probably won't be counted among Chang-rae Lee's successes, it does make for a most interesting departure.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.