Fic Lee

3 Jan

About a year ago I read a review of a forthcoming title by the author Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea. I was intrigued at first because I had read his novel Aloft in undergrad and had enjoyed his writing as well as the story. Then I read the synopsis that this was a novel about future America, a bleak story about a place called B-Mor which was formally, of course, Baltimore. Futuristic story, possibly dystopian? Sign.Me.Up.

Then: I tried to read this novel in earnest about 3 times. But I found the first person plural point of view daunting and difficult. Each time that I tried to read this novel I felt overwhelmed. Then there is the content: The story begins telling about Fan, her lover Reg, and the community of B-Mor. A settlement of mostly Chinese immigrants (in fact most helpers we see are of some kind of Asian descent) who were brought here to harvest vegetables and fish for the Charter communities (in other words, they make the food for the upper-middle and upper classes). I felt utterly lost in this world of community living, talking of their culture and their work in a plural narration.

Which is, now that I’ve finally worked up the nerve to push through this novel like a difficult workout, I think, exactly what Lee wanted.

Many of my favorite “dystopian” or futuristic novels do what On Such a Full Sea does which is to drop you, the reader, in to the story in media res.  The Handmaid’s Tale feels like a close cousin to this novel as we are enveloped so intimately into this world of B-Mor, the Charters, and the Counties that while the question of how and when certainly crosses our minds, Lee sweeps us into the story so that we are pulled into the current of the narrative and what will happen to poor young Fan on her journey to find  her love. The act of using the community of B-Mor to relay Fan’s story comes from what we learn is very intrusive surveillance. Deeper into the story we learn that just by logging into their devices they can find a person in a Charter and follow them everywhere they go. It’s not always clear how they learn all of the details of Fan’s life but perhaps we should be led to the hive mind as in B-Mor everyone knows about everyone and they live in a very tight knit community as a result.

The story is simple and it is in this simplicity that the difficult themes can be thrust into young Fan’s path. Fan is 16 and she leaves all that she knows behind to venture into the wilderness on a path alone to find Reg, the man she loves. Through her trials and her adventure we see the world outside of B-Mor. We see the dangers, the way people live without the money and protection of the Charters. And we see the way the upper-middle and upper class live in fear of cancer, of the outdoors, the sun (It’s not stated outright but it seems obvious global warming and other environmental factors have caused rates of cancer to increase), and food. But where B-Mor citizens live constantly monitored and watched, with little money and no hopes of rising in life, Charter citizens are wildly rich, even buying on credit to live their rich lifestyles. These Charters exist in constant anxiety. The punishment for crimes or for losing one’s job can mean banishment to the unprotected land of the Counties.

Fan makes for a compelling character, especially being a 16 year old woman of very small stature–she is often mistaken for a young girl of 11 or 12 (though, spoiler: she is pregnant).  She is a woman alone in the wilderness journeying without direction or knowledge of where she is going or how she is going to get there, making her way on her own terms. Many times one fears for her around men. But Lee always allows Fan to come out of the situation either by her own strength or through the relationships she forges by being a decent human being to those who are otherwise treated as “other” in this world.

This was a difficult novel–one that reminded me of a mental workout or some kind of long distance run though it was only 352 pages–but one that I am happy to have read though the ending is going to haunt me for a very long time.

“For sometimes you can’t help but crave some ruin in what you love.”
Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

“For if there is ever a moment when we are most vulnerable, it’s when we’re closest to the idea of the attained desire, and thus farthest from ourselves, which is when we’ll tread through any flame.”
Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

“You can be affected by a person because of something particular they said or did but sometimes how a person was, a manner of being, that gets most deeply absorbed, and prompts you to revisit certain parts of your life with an enhanced perspective, flowing forward right up to now.”
Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

“And while it’s easy to say this is a situation to be avoided, isn’t this what we also fear and crave simultaneously, that some internal force which defies understanding might remake us into the people we dream we are?”
Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

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