First published on 4th May, 2014 in The Star
Review by DAPHNE LEE
ON SUCH A FULL SEA
Author: Chang-Rae Lee
Publisher: Riverhead Books
IT seems to me that every month or so, someone will recommend I read yet another book set in some grim, future Earth, its workings – political, religious etc – reflecting, like a carnival mirror, a distorted version of life as we know it, invariably prophesising doom-and-gloom for mankind. These are books that raise worthy questions about life, modern man’s preoccupations and priorities, his choices and mistakes, but altogether too doom-filled for my tastes. I tend to give dystopian fiction wide-berth, preferring to get depressed over more mundane scenarios, like infidelity, bullying and death.
Not that there is none of that in these visions of an apocalyptic future. Life goes on, after all. Humans continue to love and hate, create and destroy, protect and betray. People, it seems, never change, no matter how good or bad things get. I am both disheartened and comforted by this.I was drawn to On Such a Full Sea by a description of its central character, Fan, in an article I glimpsed online. The impression I got was of a quiet, mysterious 16-year-old who doesn’t say much, but is a resourceful young woman of action. The description distracted me from the fact that the book is set in just the sort of future world I usually keep at arm’s length. It is our world, more specifically America, greatly changed, but yet the same. Society is divided into the haves and have-nots. There are three distinct communities – the privileged Charter class; the workers; and the wild Counties folk – and all live by their wits in various ways and degrees, driven by survival instinct and, sometimes, as we are shown, perverse urges.
Fan is from B-More, formerly Baltimore, a worker colony whose speciality products are fish and tomatoes. She leaves B-Mor when her boyfriend, Reg, goes missing. Although everyone in this latter-day world is afflicted by what can be assumed is cancer, Reg has tested “C-free” and it is thought that he has been whisked away to be tested. Fan, it is also assumed, goes in search of him. She is, we are told, carrying Reg’s child.
What I found most problematic about the novel is its point of view. Fan doesn’t tell her own story, and neither is it told by a third-person omniscient narrator. Her life, after she leaves B-Mor, is described by those left behind, which begs the question, “How the hell would they know what she did, what she thought, how she felt?”
One possible answer is that Fan, or at least, her post-B-Mor experiences, are part of a myth created by the people of B-Mor. It’s an interesting prospect, which explores the role of myth in sustaining life by feeding the spirit through the imagination. However, if this is the case, then Fan herself, in my opinion, becomes a less interesting character. The magic of myth is that it is not presented as make-believe, but with confidence and conviction. Fairytales and legends are told in ways that cast no doubt as to their veracity. Fan may have had any number of bizarre encounters in the Counties and the Charter villages, or … she might have been hit by a car and died two hours after leaving B-Mor. We don’t know for certain and, to me, this means that Fan’s actions and reactions cease to matter. How could they when they may or may not have happened? What becomes important and interesting is the effect that her myth has on the community that’s left behind. However, this is touched on only superficially. The focus, on paper, remains Fan.
I found it hard to connect with the character once her life away from B-Mor became merely imagined. This is not to say that the book lost its appeal entirely. Fan’s dealings with the world outside B-Mor are the stuff of urban legend, suitably strange, sick and violent, sometimes just downright wacky. I admit I felt I was rubbernecking as I turned the pages, and, no matter how tough things got for Fan, I wasn’t really able to feel anything more than the briefest horror. The narrative voice, B-Mor’s citizens, remarking, speculating, waxing lyrical about Fan, was just too intrusive – it was like watching a movie and having to listen to the guy in the seat behind giving a running commentary on the characters and the action. What made it worse was the language (the author’s or the people of B-Mor?), with its stilted phrasing. For example, “Let’s not forget he meant the world to her, and even if that speaks more to the limited extent of her experience than his personal qualities, we ought to remind ourselves of how fetching he was in sum.” Lee takes too long to cough it up, or perhaps, he means for those left behind in B-Mor to be verbose, given to convoluted, affected manners of expression. I don’t see the reason for this and so I imagine it is just to do with authorial style. Once you get used to the odd turn of phrase, it’s easy enough to get caught up in the tide of events that propel Fan through the novel.
If you are a fan of the sort of dystopian fiction produced by masters like Ursula Le Guin, this book won’t satisfy. Proceed only if you are willing to forego the solid world-building (needed to make this sort of novel work) for intense, poetic philosophising.
Neither is this a coming-of-age tale, which it could have been, given Fan’s youth, but isn’t, as Fan is mythologised from the start – she is indeed a resourceful young woman of action, but this is what she is required to be as a legend. We don’t see her strengths adding to her emotional, spiritual, mental or even physical growth – she is already fully-grown and armed, so to speak, her actions that of a hero, meant to inspire.
This idea of myth-making – its mechanics, its purpose, its outcome – is actually one I was hoping Lee would explore more thoroughly, but it was not to be. To the end, I was left wanting on all counts. Fan, my initial reason for wanting to read the book, was a red herring and remained one right to the final paragraph.