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

Thu, Jan 16, 2014 - Page 11

Chang-rae Lee’s new novel, On Such a Full Sea, is part folk tale, part picaresque adventure, part dystopian satire. It signals a bold departure from both the carefully observed realism that distinguished Lee’s powerful earlier books Aloft (2004) and A Gesture Life (1999) — and the historical vistas of The Surrendered (2010). In eschewing one of his most potent gifts as a writer — his ability to map the inner lives of his characters with sympathy and precision — Lee has produced an ungainly and strangely inert novel. Instead of creating a palpably real flesh-and-blood heroine, he has chosen to center his book on an anime-like character named Fan; and instead of creating a fully imagined fictional realm (as Kazuo Ishiguro did in his bravura sci-fi-like novel, Never Let Me Go, from 2005), he’s dropped Fan into a futuristic world that seems at once overly familiar and unconvincing.

For that matter, Full Sea often reads like a ham-handed mash-up of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Both Full Sea and Brave New World take their titles from Shakespeare quotations, and both depict socially engineered worlds that have sharply delineated caste systems and embrace stability over freedom, standardization over individuality. Both Full Sea and The Hunger Games feature 16-year-old heroines who defy the established order and find themselves fighting for their lives in the wilderness of a futuristic North America.

Many of the conditions depicted in Lee’s dystopia simply represent satirical extrapolations of current or incipient woes: Climate change has made much of the world subject to extreme weather conditions; income disparities have given way to a rigid class system; and health care for lower-class workers is rationed or out of reach. The rich live in gated communities known as Charter villages; they spend their free time shopping for expensive clothes and building additions to their McMansions, and subject their children to fierce competition for academic and extracurricular honors.

Fan, we’re told, lives in a labor settlement called B-Mor (the former Baltimore), which provides fresh fish and vegetables for Charter villages; in return, B-Mor residents enjoy “estimable housing and schooling, technical training” and health care that has grown increasingly limited, thanks to recent “reforms.” Life in B-Mor, for the most part, is safe, orderly, systematized and highly controlled: In this respect, it represents a kind of communal equivalent of the careful, cautious sensibility evinced by so many of the immigrant heroes in Lee’s earlier novels, which traps them in a “gesture life,” cut off from passion and real emotional connection.

Slender and not quite 5 feet tall, Fan has “the stature of a girl of 11 or 12,” but is skilled at her job as a “tank diver,” charged with husbanding and nurturing the valuable fish that B-Mor raises and sells. Her boyfriend, Reg, helps plant, pollinate, prune and harvest a nearby vegetable garden. One day, Reg abruptly vanishes, perhaps whisked away by Charter doctors eager to study his rumored immunity to the dreaded C-disease that afflicts the population, and Fan, who is pregnant with his child, soon leaves B-Mor in search of him. It’s a move that shocks Fan’s neighbors and friends: The unregulated world beyond the borders of B-Mor is regarded as a dangerous wilderness, and few residents have ventured beyond its tidily groomed boundaries.

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.