“[Certain] wider questions can needle if you let them,” muses the choral narrative voice of Chang-Rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such A Full Sea. “How did this ecology come to be? Is it the one we wish to endure?”
These two questions are at the heart of Lee’s novel, which is set in a decaying and divided futuristic America. It’s a world where governments have failed, having “overreached in their efforts or [been] disastrously neglectful.” It’s a world where the malls are largely subterranean, where swimming pools and playgrounds are all indoors, and where the open countryside is a dangerous place. It’s a world where the disturbingly contented many work for the enjoyment of a highly privileged few.
Lee’s earlier novels dealt with assimilation and identity, memory and history, masculinity and war. With this fifth novel, Lee ventures into speculative fiction. It is a powerfully unsettling meditation on the nature of American free will and freedom, coupled uncomfortably with several prevailing anxieties of our time: health care, class division, food safety, cancer.
On Such A Full Sea portrays an America divided starkly into three class strata. There are the largely complacent inhabitants of labor settlements like B-Mor (formerly Baltimore), who narrate the book as “we,” reflecting on the journey of the protagonist, Fan. These workers have been given just enough material comforts to prevent wanting more. There are the privileged Charters, with greater access to health care, exclusive access to B-Mor cultivated fruits and vegetables, and lucrative careers. And there are the residents of the open counties, where people have no legal protection or access to Charter resources, where violence erupts without warning.
Fan, the Chinese American teenage protagonist of Lee’s novel, is a girl diver, a “harvester” of grow-engineered fish who travels through all three arenas. She leaves the inertia of her native settlement in pursuit of her boyfriend into the open counties and finally to the Charter settlements. This is the “ecology”—the relationship of American organisms to their environment—that has evolved in Lee’s novel.
What “we wish to endure” is the more difficult question, and it’s in probing this question that Lee’s novel does its best work. The choral narrative voice tells us that Fan is legendary, near-revolutionary—people are painting murals of her and her boyfriend, long after her departure. However, it takes the larger part of Lee’s novel for us to think about why. Conspicuous consumption, the infantilization of femininity, the greed of pharmaceutical companies that are more invested in prolonging rather than curing cancer, the isolation of the nuclear family—all of these come under Lee’s piercing scrutiny, and all of them serve as antagonists in Fan’s journey. But the truly revolutionary part of Fan’s journey, the pedestal for her heroism, lies in the simple and difficult act of escape. This is a novel where freedom, that quintessential American value is defined as “a special conviction of imagination … unbounded.”
In such an America, Fan’s ability to leave her circumstances, repeatedly—not by leading masses of people through marches or rallies—is the true revolution. “If you think about it, there’s little else that’s more important than having a schedule,” the B-Mor laborer voice tells us with biting irony early in the book. The fastest path to freedom’s destruction, then, according to the novel, is the inertia of complacency.
One important element may distract readers from immersion in the story. Lee’s use of the choral narrative voice (“we”) is effective for certain purposes; as with Julie Otsuka’s similarly narrated novel Buddha In The Attic, the “we” makes space for a marginalized community to speak, deemphasizing the importance of a central individual voice. In Lee’s novel the technique is useful as a commentary on how we must patina our heroic figures in order to revere them. We must continuously add multiple layers so that their flaws and humanity are smoothed out and eventually removed.
Yet the choral voice is also less effective at times, particularly when it flashes forward from Fan’s quest to the small aftershocks of her story. The voice speculates about Fan’s motives and emotions. These speculations may also prevent readers from connecting deeply with Fan as a human character. We’re never quite inside her head or heart for very long without that narrative voice interjecting, philosophizing, analyzing. The choral narrative voice works well as a device of social critique, less effectively as a device of storytelling.
In the end it’s difficult not to appreciate an author who continues to stretch his talents, using that “special conviction of imagination” as artistic freedom. It’s difficult not to be drawn to a book that quotes both a Shakespeare play (Julius Caesar) and a Journey song (“Only The Young”) in the epigraphs. And it’s crucially important to reckon with a novel which deals—like its epigraphs —with the question of free will in the wake of decline.
Chang-Rae Lee reads at the Main branch of the Seattle Public Library on January 15, from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.