Thu, Jan 16, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Book review: On Such a Full Sea

Part ‘Brave New World’ and part ‘The Hunger Games,’ Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel is a dystopian love story of engineered worlds

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY Times News Service

The departures of Reg and Fan soon take on a mythic status, and Banksy-like graffiti images of them start appearing on walls and fences, turning them into folk heroes, of sorts. In the wake of their disappearance, the narrator (an unnamed B-Mor resident) tells us, hints of unrest and disorder also begin to creep into the collective consciousness of the community. Fan becomes a symbol, at least to some, of daring, of a willingness to brave the unknown.

B-Mor residents’ imaginations, the narrator says, are “tethered to the universe of what we know, and as wild as our dreams might be, we can’t help but read them with the same grounded circumspection that guided our forebears when they mapped out our walls. Fan, though, made a leap, which was a startling thing in itself.”

Such windy philosophical musings lend this novel a decidedly lugubrious tone and hobble the story of Fan’s search for Reg. Plotting has not been Lee’s strong suit in novels like Native Speaker (1995) and Aloft, and here, Fan’s adventures devolve into a string of bizarre encounters with assorted weirdos and mercenaries, including a former veterinarian turned physician, known as Quig, who has traded and bartered away patients and their relatives; a murderous roving family of acrobats; and a wealthy Charter woman called Miss Cathy, who wants to add Fan to her collection of girls, whom she keeps as a well-groomed menagerie of pet humans.

These encounters have no cumulative power and often feel like random episodes improvised on the fly to lend suspense to Fan’s story. And because Fan remains more of a symbol than a fully fashioned character, we have a hard time caring what happens to her, one way or the other.

In The Surrendered, Lee moved beyond the domestic realism of his earlier books to create an ambitious, symphonic novel that addressed the emotional fallout of the Korean War. Here, he has again tried to push his talents in a daring new direction, but this time, the result, sadly, is an unsatisfying and jerry-built fairy tale.

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