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REVIEW: “On Such A Full Sea” By Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea
Chang-Rae Lee
Riverhead, 352 pp., $27.95

Fourteen years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his haunting second novel, “A Gesture Life,” Chang-Rae Lee delivers another startling, unsettling work. Sentence by gorgeously meditative sentence, “On Such a Full Sea” carries its readers into a future of captivity, danger and diminished identities. 

Lee will return to Cleveland Tuesday, March 24, 2015, as part of the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s distinguished Writers Center Stage series.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The playwright gives the line to Brutus and it is worth quoting as fully as Lee does on a page before his novel starts:

             We, at the height, are ready to decline.

            There is a tide in the affairs of men,

            Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

            Omitted, all the voyage of their life

            Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

            On such a full sea we are now afloat,

            And we must take the current when it serves

            Or lose our ventures.

Lee, then, has written a quest novel. Ingeniously, it is narrated by a collective, a “we” that simultaneously Iulls and alarms.  Here is the first sentence: “It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.” The voice belongs to the descendants of immigrants imported to live in a facility called “B-Mor,” the former Baltimore.  There is a sister facility in the Midwest called “D-Troy,’ occupying the ashes of Detroit. Some kind of environmental catastrophe has swept the globe, although there is Amsterdam, “one of the few cities that is still like it was in olden times, inhabited by permanent residents but also completely open to any who wish to visit and tour and buy souvenirs and snacks.”

Not so for the residents of “B-Mor,” who keep their heads down growing vegetables and raising fish for the finicky elites called Charters.  At the bottom of the heap are the rough trade who live in the lawless “counties,” where those who misbehave are banished.  The book unfurls the story of Fan, a 16-year-old B-Mor girl who – unbelievably – hops the fence. The narrators assume she is seeking her boyfriend Reg, whom the authorities have hustled away to study because he has tested “C-free.” The C, undoubtedly, stands for cancer, which seems to carry off almost everyone in this blighted land.

Although she is as tiny as a girl four years younger, Fan has distinguished herself as an expert diver working in the facility’s fish tanks.  At the end of the opening chapter, the narrators reluctantly disclose that before she bolted, Fan did the unfathomable: she poisoned her own fish.

“On Such a Full Sea” is studded with small shocks, which grow larger and accumulate in the bloodstream of the reader.  Lee’s precise, musical writing tells a mysterious moral story reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 masterpiece, “Never Let Me Go.”  It, too, is set in a disturbing future and centers on teenagers.  Although the  film of the Ishiguro story was a dud, both novels ache with serious explorations of who qualifies as fully human.

Early in “On Such a Full Sea,” our narrators make an argument for the collective, asking, “Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” Lee’s subtlety allows this question to read another way, so it becomes “Have we not done the job of becoming the best slaves?”

All the while, Lee’s details singe and sing:  a soccer game, a lavish outpost dinner, the swimming that has been Fan’s formation. 

In her critique in the Guardian, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin praises the prose but objects to Lee and Cormac McCarthy (in “The Road”) entering into her genre of science fiction “irresponsibly, superficially.”  She dislikes what she regards as holes in these stories: How, exactly, did Lee’s world slide into its decline? How are raw materials transported and manufactured into luxury goods for the Charters when the roads are abysmal?

Such criticism rests on the assumption that all should be explicit in creating a coherent world. But in “The Road” and “On Such a Full Sea,” much potency and poignancy lie in giving the readers’ imaginations the range to fill in the blanks.

The roads to dystopia lead back to the present, and if done well, create a gravitas of the highest order. Toward the end of “On Such a Full Sea,” Fan allows herself to imagine a reunion with Reg, and a happy life.  Our narrators add the devastating coda: “For none of us can resist such hopeful flashes, which are, in the end, what lights our way through this ever dimming world.”

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