On Such a Full Sea
Chang-rae Lee's dystopian novel On Such a Full Sea is making a late entry into my favorite book I have read this summer. It was a deeply moving story of Fan, a 16-year-old girl who ventures into the unknown in search of Reg, her boyfriend (and soon-to-be father of her child), who has just disappeared from their settlement. While this plot - young woman, love story with insurmountable challenges, dystopian America - sounds familiar, the book is so much more than that. In Lee's future world, China has colonized America; Fan lives in a labor settlement ("B-Mor," Baltimore in the future) whose purpose is cultivating fish for the wealthier settlements.
The book is not told from Fan's perspective; rather it is written in the plural first person. We - the reader, the residents of B-mor, the omniscient narrator - are kept at a distance from Fan. As the NYT Book review writes, "Lee’s most interesting choice is his narrator, the collective 'we' of the B-Mor community, which changes the novel from an adventure story into a myth in the midst of creation" The story begins:
It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother?
From then, we follow Fan's life, her journey to find Reg, and the brutal trials and tribulations she goes through. While I wish we could know what Fan was thinking and feeling as she survived everything thrown her way -- the narrator "we" let the book unspool in a way that was innovative, gripping, and fascinating to read. In an interview with The New Yorker, Lee describes why he decided to use this form of narration: "it’s as much about the telling as it is the tale." He goes on to explain why he chose to write the story:
....I was travelling between New York and Washington on the train, which goes through a derelict section of Baltimore. On the return trip, we passed by again, and again I saw that sad neighborhood, which I realized I’d been seeing throughout my adult life. Decades, and really nothing had changed. Maybe it was my frustration, my feeling of powerlessness, but I was suddenly struck by a very strange idea about re-populating this and other abandoned urban areas like it all in one stroke, boom, say, with a homogenous colony of foreigners. The idea was unlikely but conceptually exciting, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a component of my interest in China was an anxiety about the decline of American power and status. So I fiddled with various basic scenarios, testing them to see which provoked the most compelling questions, and a picture of a particular kind of labor colony began to emerge. But to make the scenario plausible—there was no way such a re-populating could happen anytime soon—I realized I had to set this colony within a very different future and a very different America, one that might tolerate and even need such settlers.
(Really, just go read the whole interview; it is insightful and he is so damn eloquent). So while the novel was in a basic sense a "quest" or "adventure" tale: girl sets out into the unknown to find out why her boyfriend disappeared, it truly became a tale about violence, community, selfishness, materialism, and ultimately, the resilience of one woman.