Friday, July 25, 2014

On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee

A few days ago, a friend commented, "I've had enough of dystopian novels." I feel somewhat the same, but I nonetheless decided to listen to Chang-rae Lee's new book, On Such a Full Sea, which departs from his usual realistic fiction (which I have enjoyed) to describe a world in which environmental disaster has transformed the landscape and its inhabitants. What was once the United States has been repopulated by colonizers from Asia who found "very little to encounter by way of an indigenous population" when they arrived. The society is divided into three strata--the "Charters," where the upper classes live; labor settlements, located on the sites of great American cities, where working class people create the products required by the charters; and the "Counties," unregulated rural areas where the poorest people scratch out a living however they can.

The novel's plot is fable-like;  it is not clear whether the residents of a labor settlement known as B-Mor, the first person plural narrator(s) of the book,  actually have knowledge of the events or are engaged in myth-making via oral storytelling. The protagonist is 16-year-old Fan, a diver in B-Mor whose older brother was, years ago, one of the lucky ones who got test scores high enough to justify promotion to the charters. One day, Fan's boyfriend Reg disappears, and she takes to the road to find him. She has "adventures" in the Counties before finding her way to a Charter, where she hopes to find her brother and gain his help in locating Reg. The account of her trials--and the trials in the Counties are matched by experiences in the Charters--are interspersed with the narrators' account of the history of B-Mor and the response to the two young people's leaving the settlement. For a time, it seems that the residents of B-Mor might rise up and demand change, but the activist response dies out rather quickly, resulting in no real reform. Taken together, the two threads reveal institutional problems in all levels of the society, as well as the enduring problems engendered by human nature, fundamentally unchanged by the new order.

I have mixed feelings about On Such a Full Sea.  The pace is rather slow, primarily because of the sections of the narrative in which the dimensions of the new culture (B.D. Wong's somewhat elegiac reading also contributes). Yet the exploration of human nature in a new milieu and the aspect of myth-making are interesting--and Lee's writing, as always, is admirable.

Favorite passages:
. . . for every moment, there is a companion moment that elides on to it, a secret span that deepens the original's stamp. We feel ever-obliged by everyday charges and tasks. They conscript us more and more. We find world enough in a frame. Until at last, we take our places at a wheel or wall or line, having somehow forgotten we can look up.

. . . the funny thing about a life is how eventually it will adhere to certain routines of mind, those tracks or grooves laid down in special pressure or heat.

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