Against a vividly imagined future America, Lee tells a stunning, surprising, and riveting story that will change the way readers think about the world they live in.
On Such a Full Sea takes Chang-rae Lee's elegance of prose, his masterly storytelling, and his long-standing interests in identity, culture, work, and love, and lifts them to a new plane. Stepping from the realistic and historical territories of his previous work, Lee brings us into a world created from scratch. Against a vividly imagined future America, Lee tells a stunning, surprising, and riveting story that will change the way readers think about the world they live in.
In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class - descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China - find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement.
In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears. Fan's journey to find him takes her out of the safety of B-Mor, through the anarchic Open Counties, where crime is rampant with scant governmental oversight, and to a faraway charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend to those she left behind.
Chang-rae Lee is a Korean-American novelist and a professor of creative writing at Stanford University. He was previously Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton and director of Princeton's Program in Creative Writing.
”It couldn’t have been just Reg she had gone to search out. She had no real leads as to where he might be, or if he was even alive. So why would any sane person leave our cloister for such uncertainties? He was the impetus, yes, the veritable without which, but not the whole story. One person or thing can never comprise that, no matter how much one is cherished, no matter how much one is loved. A tale, like the universe, they tell us, expands ceaselessly each time you examine it, until there’s finally no telling exactly where it begins, or ends, or where it places you now.”
Vincent Van Gogh’s Branches with Almond Blossoms can be found on the wall of almost every B-Mor household.
Fan lives in the B-Mor colony formerly known as Baltimore. It is a high walled, safe community made up primarily of people of Chinese descent who were brought over, out of the ruins of their country, to raise fish for the Charter Communities. "It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore." The Charters live in elite villages that ring the labor colonies (repurposed suburbs) of the communities that grow their food. Beyond the walls of these villages lie the Open Counties of which little is known, but much is feared.
Fan is a fish tank diver. She cleans the tanks and retrieves the dead. She lives in a house of her extended family. ”...in the thinly partitioned row house back in B-Mor, her uncles and aunties and cousins pitching their nightly calls in a an unmelodious orchestration that heralded her blood” She pairs with Reg, a gangly, tall, young man not particularly good at anything, but such a beautiful soul that everyone adores him.
Reg disappears without a word, without a trace.
No ones knows where he is. Fan asks questions, but as she moves up the chain of command the answers become more and more nebulous and dismissive.
Fan has an inkling, I do believe, because she poisons the fish tanks that were her responsibility before she strikes out in search of her man. This was an act of defiance that had no precedent in the history of the community. She goes into the lawless country and leaves in her wake the beginnings of a revolution. Her odyssey becomes a fixation for her community as any story of her travels is amplified throughout the community, and added to her growing legend.
”Suddenly all the sturdy engineering and constructing, from the originals to now, feels as though it’s been resting upon an insufficient base, the same way a thoroughly elaborate and convincing dream can hinge upon an entirely impossible premise, which, once examined, exposes the rest as a mirage. The pilings are dust, the slab of matrix of silken spiderwebbing, and the very place we reside, our narrow row houses that have stood stalwartly wall-to-wall through a checkered history of caring and neglect, are but cells in a chimera, some bloodless being in whose myth we have believed too deeply and too long.”
After a cataclysmic event it would not be difficult to convince people to exchange their personal liberties for a steady supply of food, shelter, and safety. Who wouldn’t take it and actually be grateful for the opportunity? The thing is people in the future are going to be the same as people were in the past and the same as they are in the present. Eventually we are always going to reach a point where we will want more.
The Charters do allow the top 1.2% of children from the labor communities to ascend to their villages. They are adopted by Charter families and allowed to become full members of the community. Frankly, it is brilliant, you strengthen your own community and continue to deplete the people from the gene pool of the labor communities that would be most likely to take stock of their life and decide things had to change. (This reminds me of the decades old policy of the United States to steal the very best and brightest from all over the world by dangling citizenship before them, and convincing them that their contributions to society will be better rewarded in the United States. We become stronger and the communities they come from become weaker in the process.) These bright children from B-Mor and from other labor communities are assimilated and made to feel special. Their claws are pared before they can grow into something that could be used to slash.
Fan’s brother was one of those bright children who became a Charter member. She realizes that if she has any hope of finding Reg she first has to find her brother.
She begins by navigating the lawless Open Counties and almost before her odyssey starts it is nearly ended as she is sideswiped by a speeding vehicle. Now fortunately for her she is hit by possibly the only person in the Open Counties that can heal her wounds. His name is Quig. He is a veterinarian by trade, a disgraced Charter citizen who now makes his living helping the sick and the wounded...for a price. His story, as it it revealed to us, is tragic.
”Fan looked up but in the dimness and rain could just make out the contours of his face under the dark shadow of his baseball cap’s bill. He was bearded and had a wide frame to his jaw, and his nose looked like it had been broken multiple times, and the expression in his eyes was that of someone who has seen the worst of the life and would not be disturbed to see whatever measure more.”
He will heal her, feed her, and keep her until he figures out what to do with her.
He trades her to Miss Cathy and Mister Leo, a Charter family. Now when is anything what it seems. On the surface their household seems normal, but there are strange things behind the curtain. There are seven girls of various ages living on the top floor of this house. They have all been bartered for from the Open Counties.
They have all been raped by Mister Leo.
Miss Cathy was raped as a child, and in some sick fashion the girls are all slices of her shattered self suspended in life, regardless of their age, at the point of when her trauma occurred. She is complicit in their molestation.
”Some were grown women, twice as broad as the youngest. But something was different about all of them, and not just that they had grown old. All of their eyes were huge and shaped in the same way, half-moons set on the straight side, like band shells but darkened, their pupils being brown. They were all giggling now, shoulders scrunched, their high pitch cutesy and saccharine. They crowded about Fan, bright of teeth. They smelled laundered and dryer-fresh. And now one of them was gently touching her face, others her hair, the rest clasping her arms, her hands, already vining themselves through her, snatching Fan up.”
Fan is stoic, certainly courageous, through all her trials and tribulations. She is petite and quiet, a person easily overlooked. People sense something more in her that is larger than her size, something powerful. Chang-Rae Lee paints a world where on the surface you might think any one of these places is a utopia, but as you dig deeper you discover they are really all dystopias. There are benefits, despite the problems, to all three segments of this universe and I’m still not sure, if I were to find myself in this world, which scenario I would strive to call my home. Fan’s journey gives Lee the means to show us the layers of his creation, a real look at one possible future. This is the first book I’ve read by Lee, but it will most certainly not be my last. He holds a mirror up. It is our responsibility to look into our own eyes.
I must say that I really wanted to like this book. As a recipient of an advanced copy I do have a desire to keep the publisher happy...but I just can't in good conscience give it higher than 2 stars.
The stars are for the writing. Lee composes beautiful sentences and has some great passages. For example: "the rain coming down in sheets but unable to dampen any part of them." or "maybe it's the laboring that gives you shape. Might the most fulfilling time be those spent solo at your tasks, literally immersed or not, when you are able to uncover the smallest surprises and unlikely details of some process or operation that in turn exposes your proclivities and prejudices both?" or "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?" or "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".
Unfortunately, I did not really like the concept or the execution of the book. This is a dystopian novel about American after its decline. Parts of it reminded me of Atwood's Oryx and Crake series (but those were better); parts of it (the Chinese domination) reminded me of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas; and parts of it reminded me of Murakami's After Dark. The concept is the same, but Lee doesn't render it very interesting.
For a futuristic sci-fi novel, there are surprisingly few new gadgets. People still drive cars, they use "handsets" instead of cell phones (but these are the same things). Instead, the developments are medical (but no one is on any cool drugs) and C-focused (read cancer treatment). I didn't feel like this was hundreds of years in the future. I felt like it was about 5 years into the future.
Lee presents a society divided into three: the outcasts (those in the counties); the Charters (elites); and the workers in the settlements (B-Mor). He then constructs a fairytale-like story of Fan to illustrate her journey through the three societies and eventually reveals to the reader that the workers are the happiest. The elites are stressed and worried about their position in society; those in the counties are happy but live an unstructured (and therefore unstable) life. The workers have stability and reliability and family and are, therefore, the most satisfied. Briefly, they rebel but ultimately things pan out.
The story is not really plot driven, Fan is supposedly looking for Reg, but she is not a strong character. She is more emblematic than anything. There are no real changes or developments in the characters. The mechanisms are all contrived (Fan is delivered from Quig to Mr. Leo and Miss Cathy to Vik to Oliver rather simply) to give the reader a tour of this world without any real compelling action.
Ultimately, lots of pieces did not make sense: for example, people wanted to be "chartered" but Charters were frequently falling if they ran out of money to sustain their lifestyle. Certainly, having the opportunity for upward mobility is important and being given the chance to succeed is nice, but it is far from guaranteed that one would get anything out of becoming a Charter other than lots of debt unless simultaneously one obtained a job. And so, it did not make sense that Mala was grateful that her children would become Charters (because she does not have the funds to support them so wouldn't they ultimately become counties anyway?) instead of just wanting them to inherit her position in Miss Cathy's household. Also, it did not make sense that Dale would give anything away to Quig's daughter (let alone a lot of costume jewelry) because everything has value and can be bartered in the counties. The ending was not believable: why would Oliver who loves having Fan around sell her out when he is in the process of building a replication of the B-Mor homestead to emulate the importance of family? It should have been Betty who was selling her out. Further, the research facilities already have Reg in captivity, why would they need his off-spring. Presumably they could take a sperm sample and grow a test tube baby. Or even clone him.
Finally, I did not like the overall narration. Lee uses first person plural (we) to describe the B-Mors' reaction to Reg and Fan's departure. He speaks as if the reader is a B-More resident but then, that begs the question; to what purpose? The narrator is telling a folk tale, he is narrating something which is fantasy (after all, no one really knows anything about what happened to Fan or Reg), but he uses omniscient voice and presumes to know the intimate details of her journey as well as the backstory of everyone she encounters. In the "story" the narrator is distant, but when talking about B-Mors or (interestingly enough) the Girls uses 1st person plural. The narrator only uses "we" when telling "us" what we feel and when we are (as he describes) "being just one, as beset with joy and pain as any single person." The use of "we" is meant to make the characters hive-like (as are the family units in B-Mor), but the story is one of an individual. Unfortunately, instead of finding this contract profound; I just found the slippage in narration to be annoying.
I also felt (at times) like it was almost an outline, rather than a story. For example, the scene in which Fan and Vik go to the circus is written very summarily (rather than expository); instead of actual dialogue, Lee tells the reader what was said and it just comes across as not-yet-finished.
Overall, the book is just not very compelling; it is not plot driven or a character piece; it is more a description of a setting. It comes across as if Lee had a vision of this world and then just wanted to paint it for the reader.
The most striking dystopian novels sound an alarm, focus our attention and even change the language. “The Handmaid’s Tale” crystallized our fears about reproductive control; “Fahrenheit 451” still flames discussions of censorship; and “1984” is the lens through which we watch the Obama administration watching us.
Chang-rae Lee’s unsettling new novel, “On Such a Full Sea,” arrives from that same frightening realm of total oversight and pinched individuality. But it’s a subtler, quieter affair, more surreal than horrifying. Lee whispers the inchoate anxieties about modern life. If Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” stirred nightmares about our destiny, “On Such a Full Sea” is more likely to draw you off into troubled daydreams about this afternoon.
Although it’s too late to express surprise about another literary novelist venturing into the tall grass of genre fiction, Lee’s range is astonishing. Three of his novels — including “The Surrendered,” which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize — deal with war or alienation, but try reconciling those dark masterworks with his witty, big-hearted “Aloft” (2004), which confidently strolled into John Updike’s suburban milieu. And now he’s published a story set in our bleak, overheated future.
“On Such a Full Sea” opens on a wasted landscape where the remnants of civilization survive in strictly stratified compounds, walled off from the lawless scrap heap of North America. In some ways, it’s a familiar tale: a lone radical’s picaresque journey through a repressive society ripe for revolution. But at every turn, Lee thwarts our expectations.
“Most would agree that any rational person would leap at the chance of living here,” begins the plural narrator, the communal “we” of B-Mor, “once known as Baltimore.” Nearly 100 years ago, their ancestors were shipped in from China to live on the Eastern Shore, where they raise perfect fish in carefully controlled tanks. “Stability is all here in B-Mor,” we’re told. “It’s what we ultimately produce, day by night by day, both what we grow for consumption and how we are organized in neighborhood teams, the bonds of blood or sexual love relied upon equally to support our constitution. In this difficult era the most valuable commodity is the unfailing turn of the hours and how they retrieve for us the known harbor of yesterday.”
That voice, with its strange blend of orthodoxy and poetry, wonder and lament, casts the hypnotic spell of “On Such a Full Sea.” Lee has shifted not just the time and the social customs, but the ideals and the language of these people, to produce that uncanny effect of familiarity and alienness that the most troubling dystopian stories share.
This is “the tale of Fan, the young woman whose cause has been taken up by a startling number of us.” Fan’s job, we learn, “was to husband and nurture the valuable fish that allow our community to do so well in this mostly difficult world.” Sixteen years old, she enjoyed her job, and she was devoted to the fish, but otherwise there was nothing particularly remarkable about her in this monochromatic culture. Except that she loved a gangly young man named Reg, and their pure affection for each other charmed and brightened everyone who saw them together.
Then one day “Reg was gone,” without warning or explanation. And so begins Fan’s journey to find him — a quest across the hostile “open counties,” a Mad Max land of shantytowns and murderous gangs (lucky victims are kept as slaves). She heads off without permission, protection or any information about Reg’s whereabouts. For the people she leaves behind, it’s an unthinkable risk: “We’re no longer fit for any harsher brand of life, we admit that readily, and simply imagining ourselves existing beyond the gates is enough to induce a swampy tingle in the underarms, a gaining chill in the gut.”
But they do imagine her quest — in rich and sometimes lurid detail. “The reach of our thoughts has a near ceiling,” the narrators say, but Fan’s example pushes against that mental limit. What follows is the story of Fan’s inexorable search for her young lover, a story constructed from rumors and gossip, speculation and dreams. Even while reminding us parenthetically that they know nothing about what actually happened to her, the tale takes shape. “We can’t help but build upon what is known,” the narrators say, “our elaborations not fantastical or untrue but at times vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves.” Unprotected and alone for the first time in her life, Fan falls prey to people who have clustered together in varying degrees of compassion and savagery, while back home her curious comrades hope she won’t “become sausage.”
What a strange novel this is, with its erratic pacing, its haphazard mingling of adventure and philosophical reflection, its constant questioning of its own veracity. As Fan’s search progresses from one near-death escape to another, we begin to understand that we’re witnessing the creation of a legend: an unlikely heroine who answers the needs of a people suffocating under the ideals of self-sacrifice and stability. In the narrators’ plural voice, we can hear the competing strains of censure and enthusiasm, their pious condemnation of Fan’s radical act along with their delight that such courage is still possible. Eventually, Fan’s “boosters” commit tiny acts of vandalism: Graffiti appear briefly on the streets; a new sense of life outside their neat streets starts to seem imaginable. But “doesn’t B-Mor as conceived and developed and now constituted obviate the need for such purposeful dreaming?” the narrators ask, answering their own poignant question in the silence that follows.
It’s a haunting critique of a spiritually stunted community kept satisfied with basic comforts and the promise of protection from a threatening world. (Are you getting all this, NSA?) But gradually, the novel’s focus shifts toward a wealthy settlement, a Charter, where Fan believes her lover has been taken for medical research. That society poses an even more disconcerting vision. After all, we’ve seen oppressive overlords before in dystopian fiction, but what Fan discovers is something far more benevolent — and therefore more insidious.
The privileged members of the Charter are fixated on risk. Standing at the pinnacle means constantly itching with the fear of failing, of going broke, of getting sick, of growing old. “Charters are famously nervous,” the narrators say, “for despite their wealth and security and self-satisfied demeanors, they are obsessed with minimizing hazards of any kind, and are perhaps wracked most of all by the finally unknowable dangers of what they ingest.” The people of the Charter are devoted to the fantasy of their own goodness, but beneath that delusion, they burn in a white fire of anxiety about the purity of their vegetables, the health of their organs, the status of their careers, the flow of their money. They’re convinced that every atom of their lives can be controlled if only they work hard enough. Who wouldn’t they betray to protect themselves?
Once again, Lee creates an impossibly foreign world, and with his muted, elegiac voice shows us living there. It’s a brilliant, deeply unnerving portrait that might even distract you for a moment when you’re battling a svelte yoga fanatic at Whole Foods for the last bag of organically grown quinoa.
Wonderful prose is here for the taking in On Such a Full Sea. A 'frenzy of littering', 'the idle blather of pipe dreams', an old man who was 'stuck in a rut of wrong thinking' - fantastic stuff. So there's that. Unfortunately, the plot never really clicked into place for me and it felt as though I was just reading words, albeit words arranged in beautiful phrases.
I fear this may be a prime example of trying to read the wrong book at the wrong time syndrome. Too much going on in real life to give it my full attention. The mellifluous writing is reason enough to give this one a try.
Uh, so boring! I love a good dystopia but this just never got started for me. Flat characters and a cold approach in terms of narration. I never felt connected to the characters or the world that Lee tried to create.
I should say right off the bat that I am more shocked than anyone that I didn't enjoy this book more. I had been looking forward to reading it after it ended up on numerous best-of-the-year lists, and even more so when the author was announced as part of the line-up for the 2015 Open Book series at the University of South Carolina. I try to get to a few of those every year, and have to be selective as it is a four hour trip total.
I did learn more about the background to why the author wrote this book, and feel as if I have a better understanding as to why he made some of the decisions he did. Learning these things did not make me enjoy the book more, per se, but understanding it more led more to my appreciation of the novel.
The author set out to write a novel about modern day factory workers in China. He even visited some factories to see how people lived and worked, but then as he wrote, just didn't feel inspired. A train trip through Baltimore, where he saw some abandoned row houses, made him start thinking about how immigrants might use abandoned space in America, but a lot of the way society works now would not allow for that imagining. So he had to set the novel in the future, and an accidental dystopian novel was born.
He also started thinking about the idea of an immigrant group, rather than an individual or family. He pointed out how most of the novels with immigration as a theme focus on a person, a family.
This idea of groups of immigrants is important, because the entire novel is told by a plural narrator. The story seems like it is the story of Fan, who leaves the future resettled city of B-Mor (Baltimore) but in the author's mind, the novel is about the narrator. The group, the community. This explains why Fan's story is left without a satisfying ending, but I still would have liked more of Fan's story. It isn't obvious that she isn't the main character; she's written very much like a protagonist - she leaves BMor to find the father of her child, she journeys to other areas of the former United States of America, she is the one encountering the strange groups of people that naturally form in these types of lawless landscapes, and as a reader I just expected to have more satisfaction.
All along the way, the narrator(s) have commentary on the decisions Fan makes, the values she shows, and how they are effected. They are not omniscient nor are they without opinion. Sometimes it comes across as judgmental, and that was actually amusing.
Otherwise I share a struggle with this novel that I had with Station Eleven - I want my dystopia to have a little more realism to it. At least Lee is looking at the ramifications of pollution in various ways - the community moving to BMor completely destroyed their factory town in China and they needed a new place to live (would you choose Baltimore?), everyone ends up with C (I assume this is cancer) - it's not a question of if but when, and BMor people are the food factory workers of the new society.
Lee is thoughtful in his commentary on the differences in classes, and interestingly this ran along a parallel theme to a non-fiction book I've been reading - Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Lee pays a lot of attention to China and thinks everyone should be, as the next economic center. He follows the logical progression to a time when China is flailing the way other former superpowers are not struggling for the time frame of this novel.
Still I am not satisfied, not after listening to the author speak, even if I found him thoughtful and well researched. I would still read other books by him, because they all sound different from one another. And I enjoyed meeting him and shaking his hand.
Chang-Rae Lee's "On Such a Full Sea" presents us with a dystopian vision of the future--a world of abandoned and boarded up metropolises in the U.S. that have been converted into colonies by Chinese immigrants fleeing from the toxic environment of their homes in China, which is no longer fit for human life. These colonies--D-Troy (formerly Detroit) and B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) have become gated cities where these Chinese immigrants farm fish and fresh vegetables to supply food to the wealthiest members of society who live in Charter villages (also gated/protected).
And what lies between these refurbished cities and Charter villages, you might ask? What are these good citizens being protected from? The outer counties--the land of outlaws, social deviants, the insane, the murderers, the drug dealers, and essentially anyone who has been run out of town in one of the safer situations for transgressions not very different from our laws today.
And that brings me to my next observations, the quiet and eerie quality of Lee's dystopian vision that is not nearly as politically charged as the ones we see in other dystopias--Ayn Rand's "Anthem," Lois Lowry's "The Giver," Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" nor Ally Condy's "Matched." Lee's vision here works on us in a subtle way, creeping up on us before confronting us with disturbing situations and images that will haunt us likely long after we finish reading this book. And this story makes us think far beyond the simple black vs. white, either/or vision we see in so many other dystopias, where there are clear heroes and villains. In other words, this story is so much more than a simple tale of good vs. evil.
And notice my use of the first person plural point of view here. That is the point of view Lee uses to tell the story of Fan (B-Mor tank diver) and her first love, Reg (B-Mor greenhouse keeper). The narrator "we" tells the story of Fan (who becomes a kind of larger than life folk hero) as she takes off one day in search of Reg after he mysteriously disappears from B-Mor. "On Such a Full Sea" is the story of Fan's great trials and adventures in the outer counties, and I won't say more because I don't want to give too much away. But I will say that Lee's interesting use of point of view gives the story an added layer of depth, causing us to question the credibility of the story, how many of the gaps have been fantastically filled in by its tellers, which raises the question of how true any historical account can really be. Lee also touches on some of our deepest fears--which any dystopian fiction worth reading should do--with regard to race, class, and the U.S.'s dependency on China and where that could very well lead us.
I didn't want to give this one five stars because I smell a sequel, and I hate when that happens. A book should stand alone as a great book and shouldn't need a sequel (as almost every great literary masterpiece has), but that is what the damn publishers do these days, so why punish Chang-Rae Lee for it, right? Besides, this book in addition to its adventurous elements, is beautifully written and has a delightfully surreal and dream-like quality to it, and these are qualities I look for in my fiction.
"On Such a Full Sea" is not an easy read. That's the first thing that should be stated. The language is oftentimes hard too embellished, and some details too difficult for some readers (me included) to grasp. However, once you understand this is one of the aspects that makes this a beautiful work, it doesn't seem to matter anymore. It is not a page-turner, as one might argue to try to increase sells, and comprehensively so. Second: this is not any distopyan novel, and this is not young adult by any means. If it is considered so, YA literature has been made into something completely different with this one, for some of the more sutile details are hard to get for an innocent reader. Also, it is not a novel as most of us know it. The book is clearly not divided into three sections, namely beginning, middle, and end, as stories usually are, but composed of different tellings of stories carefully knitted as a chronological tale where Fan is the main character, but not exactly so. It reminds me, in some way, of Kino's Travels, a Japanese light-novel. That said, Fan's story is sometimes written like a fairytale, or a myth, of simple and crude philosophy. I don't know if my impression is shared by others, but the narrative doesn't seem to be told by a "collective consciousness", as stated in many reviews I read before buying this wonderful book; rather, by different narrators in different points of her story, all of them from B-Mor but sometimes fluctuating between distinct scenarios. The narrator at the end of the book, for instance, reminds me of the Seven Sisters; it must have been someone who knew Fan, and not merely someone who heard stories about her. There's a lot to be said about the book as a whole, its political and philosophical subjects, but I will not go there. I think it has been pretty much covered by others. In one sentence, I loved this book, but not like I loved others, in a weird manner. I will attain myself to saying that this book defies patterns and stillness in every sense: wealth is not always wealth, poverty is not always poverty, a projected society doesn't always follow a predetermined script. A beautiful story doesn't always have a beginning, middle, and end, and a person is not always one.
Dystopian fiction is at once prophecy and indictment. It has to be - these are what allow it to have any of the rest of its definitive characteristics.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is at once an indictment against and prophecy of a (medicinally) drugging culture.
1984 by George Orwell is at once an indictment against and prophecy of a surveillance state, and the end of privacy.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is at once an indictment against and prophecy of an anti-woman culture.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is at once an indictment against and prophecy of a society that has stopped reading.
Each of these authors (and the many, MANY others) saw something wrong with society, and addressed it by writing about one of the various possible outcomes the path of time and history could wind through.
And aspects of these societies mentioned in some of the books in the dystopian cannon have turned out to be uncannily (and appallingly) prescient. Though, it's safe to say that members of those societies (and indeed our own) weren't aware they were already living in a Dystopian society... C'est la vie, right?
On Such a Full Sea is no exception - there are indictments galour: how we treat the elderly, our health care system, our police force, our educational system, social structure - upper/middle/lower socio-economic status... I hesitate to use the word "class" as the word is rapidly evolving.
The wide-spread use of "hand screens" is an indictment I find especially disturbing. When you have a book, YOU HAVE A BOOK. When your entire library is on one device, and the power fails. You lose your entire library. Does this not trouble anybody else? When Amazon/Google/Tech-'R-Us decides to pull a book from every device out there, they're all gone. This doesn't bother you? I'm glad it bothers Chang-rae Lee. I'm on your side, man. I'm bumping the book up to 4 stars just for that.
Here's another note I wrote down while reading, "The early explanation of this dystopian eugenics method is an indictment on our own societal cycle of poverty. Certain strata are predisposed to higher education, a select few from outside that class allowed in. The rest are left to fend for themselves."
The book is ambitious. It's a futuristic Gospel/Odyssey, with the protagonist Fan as the messianic traveler, going from locale to locale helping people that don't necessarily deserve to be helped, and blinding the cannibalistic Cyclops families when need be.
(If you haven't read the book, skip out on this next part... if you have, I'd love for you to tell me what you think in the comments.)
At any rate, I've been reading a lot of YA dystopian lit lately. You know... The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, Ender's Game... It felt like I was graduating to... you know... Adulthood.
Although, I wonder if this will fall into the trap that Card fell into with Ender's Game. He didn't write that to be a "YA" novel, but because his protagonist (Ender) started out so young, that's what it became.
I think the lexile in this book will be high enough to scare the kiddies away.
Dystopian literary fiction is an often under-appreciated and underutilised literary tool. Chang-rae Lee steps away from the historical novels he normally writes to give us On Such a Full Sea, a dystopian novel set over a hundred years into the future. The novel tells the story of a teenage girl Fan who works in the high walled, self-contained labour colony know as B-Mor (formally the city of Baltimore) who goes searching for the man she loves as he has mysteriously disappeared.
I often enjoy a novel that disguises political discourse with the dystopian fiction genre. Think 1984’s message on totalitarianism, Fahrenheit 451 on censorship, Super Sad True Love Story on Globalisation. On Such a Full Sea also has a political message but it is far more subtle. The thing about literary criticism and political discourse is that you can often find differing opinions; was this novel on the harsh reality of immigration, slavery, human trafficking, removal of individuality or something more? I’m not going to go into too much detail on this; you can discover that on your own.
I want to have a quick look at the dystopian world that Lee has created as it follows a similar style to that of George Orwell’s 1984. These walled communities are more like labour camps, designed to keep people in rather than out. The workers are being watched and controlled by fear; rather than by governmental oversight, the labours are been monitored by The Charters, which to me feels like middle management. In this future most of the American cities have been abandoned due to crushing debts and disease and the Chinese cities are suffering from major air and water pollution. The solution, to relocate and occupy America; this is why Fan and the others are found working in B-Mor.
The harsh realities of this dystopian world are often drowned out by the beauty in Chang-rae Lee’s writing. You can spend so much time being swept away by the writing that the plot really does take a back seat. This works only because the plot isn’t really as strong as I would have liked it to be. There are times I found myself enjoying the writing and not really paying enough attention to the plot only to have something shocking happen that snaps me back to attention. I would have liked a stronger plot, it really was a big downfall for me, not that plotless books are bad it’s just the particular story called for it.
I picked up this book because Chang-rae Lee mentored my current literary obsession Gary Shteyngart and helped him get his first book published. My first thought was On Such a Full Sea sounds very similar to Super Sad True Love Story. I expected to read a similar book about the struggles of Chinese immigrants but I’m happy to see the two novels are very different. There are a few similarities but not enough to compare them; Shteyngart uses satire and humour where Lee takes a more serious approach.
The plot may sound basic but On Such a Full Sea is a stunning yet surprising novel. This is actually my first Chang-rae Lee novel and while I enjoyed this novel, I’m not in a hurry to read his back list. Lee joins the ever growing list of serious novelists trying their hand at genre fiction. I for one am happy to see an increase in literary genre fiction; you can do some interesting things with genre fiction and blend that with the discourse of literary fiction the results are often amazing.
A very disappointing work but one that would incite a lively discussion. The premise reminded me of Never Let Me Go, but does not match Ishiguro's novel in its execution or skill. It tries to grapple with interesting questions of what the good life is and whether it is best achieved through collectivism, individualism or some combination of both; and it presents a disturbing portrait of the artist and patron in society. But these glimpses of depth are muddled by wooden characterizations and rather desperate plotting devices. Several passages I found ludicrous and completely unnecessary, embarrassing to the author even. This book is only worth reading if you're a great fan of Lee's work or of dystopian novels. How did the publishers and author decide it was ready to be shown to others? If you're interested in reading something by Chang-rae Lee but haven't yet, please avoid this and try Native Speaker or The Surrendered instead.
This is a sort of strange but fascinating dystopian novel about a futuristic Baltimore (B-Mor) following a series of environmental catastrophes and the institution of a global tiered society. We follow the fate of one girl who leaves B-Mor to find her lover who had been whisked away by the powers that be. Her journey takes us to several other strange places in this world - and we encounter some twisted people somewhat reminding me of Walking Dead bad guys. I enjoyed the book and understand why it was so highly praised.
At first glance, this appears to be a dystopian novel set in the future, after there has been significant environmental damage done to the planet. On second glance, this book is a philosophical novel exploring current themes of alienation, wealth, greed, ecology, freedom, and what it takes to survive in a harsh world where the only thing of value is money.
TRUST NO ONE.
That seems to be one underlying theme of this book. At some point in the future, people with money will live in walled cities, people without will live in the lawless, poor, outlying areas. Everyone, rich or poor, suffers serious health consequences of living in such a polluted world. The rich people (Charters) have created some safe towns for workers to produce factory-grown fish and vegetables that they can purchase and hopefully, live a few years longer. These worker towns seem to be almost idyllic, but they have their issues as our unseen narrator reveals throughout the novel.
Our heroine, Fan, leaves her safe city of B-Mor one day after the sudden disappearance of her boyfriend, Reg. She sets out on her own across the counties and ends up in one adventure after another. She learns the world works on money, and the buying and selling of people is just part of the game. After all, you have to have money. You have to eat. And is anyone ever truly free?
The pace is relatively slow, and after a chapter or two of Fan's adventures, the narrator discusses what things are like in B-Mor now that Fan has gone, causing more unrest than she ever dreamed of causing.
Considering how much I loved The Surrendered by Lee and how much I normally like dystopian novels, I thought it would be a no brainer that I would love On Such a Full Sea. I started the book with the full expectation that it could possibly be one of the best books I'd read this year. Apparently my expectations were way too high: upon finishing, I thought it was just okay.
On Such a Full Sea is set in a dystopian future, in a work facility type village named B-Mor full of mostly New Chinese inhabitants. Fan is a sixteen year diver, trained since childhood to dive into the facility's fish tanks and help care for the fish. The fish and produce grown in B-More are sold to the higher status Charter villages located a ways from B-Mor.
For it being a dystopian novel, the setting is boring. Lee could have done so much with the counties and even the Charter villages. Instead, they're not much different from current rural areas and wealthy suburban McMansion neighborhoods. In the begining, it sounds as if the counties are this mysterious and extremely dangerous place. Although rough and full of poverty, in many ways they are mundane. And, the details of the Charters houses are so unneccesary to the story. Do we really need to know how many rooms are in the new houses being built for Oliver and family?
The writing is in I guess a sort of plural first person POV, the POV being the citizens of B-Mor. It made for a very detached writing style, and I never felt a connection to any characters. By the end, I could care less what happened to Fan. I was almost hoping something bad would happen to her since in general she's an unremarkable and rather dull character.
There were inconsistancies in the story. After Fan has been in the Smokes for a bit, it's mentioned that she's five weeks preganant (so just three weeks post conception). It's also mentioned that Fan knew she was pregnant when she left B-Mor. So, either she knew she was pg just a day or two after conception, or she had been in the Smokes for less time than we're led to believe. Either way it's annoying. There were also other details that didn't jibe: the counties supposedly being so horrible yet really aren't, that nearly all B-Mors can't swim but have an indoor community swimming pool, that the Charters are so secure and protected yet let county folks in (I found myself wondering why they didn't just invade).
In short, I was glad to finally finish this book. A real let down after The Surrendered.
So many contradictions. Lee explores multiple themes in “On Such a Full Sea” including the nature of freedom, safety, the transcendence of loving and relatedness, social class and racial issues, and, most unusually, relentless endurance. He also creates a unique atmosphere that is at once violently sad yet peaceful. I was at once unsettled and lulled. I almost want to describe the setting as zenlike yet overlaid with elements from the old American West where violence and disaster could lurk around every bend. Lee also plays with time. He leaves us wondering if the events take place in the future or a parallel past or maybe even a shadow world of our own…one that looks like our reality and that can seem frighteningly relatable but with just enough change in perspective that it feels alien. Where I expected a mainstream literary perspective he introduces a science fiction element. Again very unsettling. In one section of the book there were shades of a more literary V. C. Andrews.
Fan is the young woman at the heart of the book. She goes on a journey supposedly to find her lost lover but discovers many layers of relatedness. She’s ordinary in an extraordinary way. Her journey takes on legendary status to the people she leaves behind. Her fable changes their world. Fan’s extraordinary skill is diving and the ability to hold her breath for long periods underwater. Lee uses this as a metaphor for her unusual ability to endure yet do it gracefully. I loved stepping into Lee’s world for the duration of “On Such a Full Sea”.
This reviews is based on an Advance Readers Copy provided by the publisher. (Disclaimer given as required by the FTC.)
This short book felt way too long. Here is yet more evidence that genre writers should be considered artists of a different kind, and that literary writers don't understand how to write a genre plot. There is a good enough set up here of a dystopian society, but the most interesting thing that happens in this novel, and only after much blah-blah, is a spontaneous uprising where the working class throws crackers etc to feed the fish in a pond. No one gets hauled off and shot for illegal fish feeding, though--still other nameless workers appear and clean out the pond and life goes on. Why?
On Such a Full Sea shows a beautiful display of language. Lee illustrates here he can masterfully turn a sentence and write scenes that are enthralling. The writing is top-notch, but it doesn't all come together as one might hope. Largely, I enjoyed the writing more than the novel itself.
The story of Fan and her quest had a sluggish start. Some of this was world building, as the narrator spent considerable time introducing the reader to this culture. The speed picks up eventually and the result is a more engaging story. Nevertheless, I didn't quite connect with the narrator. The story is told in a quasi-biographical tone—at times it's a personal history of Fan's journey, at other times it felt like it was written by a professional novelist with an intimate knowledge of Fan and these events. It didn't quite work. Because of the biographical tone, I never felt strongly for Fan; because of the more speculative writings, I lost faith in our narrator. A different, more defined choice for the narrative would've been welcomed. I think this is a novel that the author might have been wise to consider taking one more pass at prior to publication. Even so, it's good; though maybe not all it could've been.
Nevertheless, I marveled at the world Lee built here, somehow so very much like our own, yet one I wouldn't wish to live in. The three segments of society Lee depicts in the novel all have their own level of depravity. It's one of those novels that helps you envision a world that is out of science-fiction, only to force you to realize that world is a reflection of your own. With its lack of futuristic devices and terminology, the world at the heart of the novel feels more like an alternate time line, or a future that is (though couldn't possibly be given the scope of the back-story) only a few years away. It's never quite clear when these events take place, but there are many things that aren't clear in this novel.
So it's sort of a hit-and-miss. This novel is one that many readers will hope for more out of, or wish it could've been tweaked one way or another, but it will be hard for readers to dismiss the display of talent. It's a stunning portrait; certainly enough to garner Lee some new readers, especially the many who love a good dystopian novel.
What a beautiful book. A fully-realized dystopian world - achingly close to our own, but still wonderfully imaginative. Lee doesn't stint on the bad stuff - he never does - but at bottom, Fan's story is still one of hope and tenderness persisting in a radically hopeless world. I thought using the first-person plural voice ("we") for the B-more chapters might start to grate, but like How to Get Rich in Rising Asia's "you" (another story of tenderness and humanity in dystopia!), the experiment actually works. The voice evokes the communal, with ripples of the nascent individual struggling to come through - a skillful linguistic evocation of the B-more ethos.
I didn't want this one to end!
(Disclaimer: I heard Lee read the first several pages of this at an event in Brooklyn last month, and then got to chat with him a bit afterwards. I was totally charmed - he's super cute in addition to being a great writer, so I may have bumped this up 1/2 a star on account of my starstruck crush! But it is a great book.)
What a strange novel this is, with its erratic pacing, its haphazard mingling of adventure and philosophical reflection, its constant questioning of its own veracity. "On Such a Full Sea" is a haunting critique of a spiritually stunted community kept satisfied with basic comforts and the promise of protection from a threatening world. (Are you getting all this, NSA?)
Once again, Chang-rae Lee creates an impossibly foreign world, and with his muted, elegiac voice shows us living there. It’s a brilliant, deeply unnerving portrait that might even distract you for a moment when you’re battling a svelte yoga fanatic at Whole Foods for the last bag of organically grown quinoa.
"Moment to moment we act freely, we make decisions and form opinions and there is very little to throttle us. We think each of us has a map marked with private routings and preferred habitual destinations, and go by a legend of our own. Yet it turns out you can overlay them and see a most amazing correspondence, what you believed were very personal contours aligning not exactly but enough that while our via points may diverge, our endings do not."
This month's post-apocalyptic book club selection.
B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, is a tightly-knit but regimented community of workers. They are the descendants of people from an ecologically devastated China, brought to a declining America to produce goods for the wealthy, who live in walled Charter communities.
One of the residents of B-Mor is Fan, a young woman, seemingly a model worker and citizen, who unexpectedly leaves the community and ventures alone into the dangerous 'open counties' after her boyfriend 'disappears.'
The novel alternates between telling Fan's story, and having an unnamed narrator, a B-Mor resident, philosophize about Fan and the meaning of her actions.
I have to admit that at time I found the philosophizing bits, which read a bit like a report set down for posterity, to be a bit tedious. However, at other moments, their insightfulness and the beauty of the writing really struck me (see the quote above). [Not for nothing is this guy a professor at Princeton and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.]
Still, I preferred the parts where Fan's story was actually getting told. In many ways it stays with the conventions of the genre: a quest for an unlikely outcome, a peripatetic journey during the course of which the protagonist encounters a concatenation of strange situations illustrating the variety of circumstances that people may create for themselves 'after the fall.' Although the tune is familiar, this is among the better renditions that I've encountered.
Fan is a strong, capable person, but she is just one (literally small) person in a large, hazardous world. I felt that the sense I got of even the most capable of us being like a leaf tossed in the wind was appropriate for the post-apocalyptic setting. Some people may not like that Fan, here, is a very opaque character. Her story is, essentially, being told to us by someone else, so we don't see her internal dialogue. But a large point of the book is about how others project their own dreams and disappointments onto Fan, how she becomes a symbol in her community. So I felt that worked as well.
The story slowly but steadily builds in tension. It has a sense of predictability/inevitability of fate to it which became near-agonizing toward the end. I had some doubts whether I'd be happy with any of the possible ways that I guessed it might conclude. But I actually loved the ending - I thought it had just the right mixture of openness and conclusion, pessimism and hope.
You have to call this a dystopian story, but the world it describes is pretty recognizable. It is certainly not a chaotic world as is generally the case in a dystopian novel. If there aren't any walled workers communities in America today, it is not unthinkable that it could happen in a not so distant future. In this novel, immigrants from China have been resettled in abandoned American cities because air and soil in China had become so toxic that they had to leave their country behind. They are now settled for generations and have a good life. Fan, our heroine, is raised in B'More, formerly Baltimore, a New China workers facility, specializing in growing vegetables and raising fish. When her boyfriend disappears, she leaves on a quest to find him. I do not know whether it was Chang-rae Lee's intention that her quest takes on the form of an Odyssee, complete with a communal voice of the people of B'More commenting on her adventures. Fan takes on a mythical stature in their comments, as it is so exceptional that anyone leaves their community. It is a pity that this novel did not work for me. I found the story, action and characters really boring. Even Fan never became a person who was alive in any way. In closing, I would like to say that I did like other novels of Chang-rae Lee, so I am certainly not given up on him!
I didn't listen to this novel under optimal conditions. I listened to the audiobook (which is absolutely perfectly narrated by B. D. Wong in what may be one of my favorite reader/novel pairings ever) but I kept stopping to take breaks. (I started it right before Scribd's audiobook model changed, and I had to finish a bunch of other audiobooks I wouldn't have access to again.) So it took me a month or so to read this book and I often listened while I was in the airport and traveling and very tired, so it wasn't optimal by any means.
But none of that could change how incredibly affecting this book was, how innovative its style was, how much I cared about Fan and what was happening to her.
This was a beautiful, surreal, melancholy, literary, genre-bending and really innovative novel that I just couldn't get enough of. I hope to come back to it under better conditions to enjoy it more thoroughly.
This was one of a number of audiobooks on a recent road trip. I don't usually listen to audiobooks, so it's hard to distinguish my unfamiliarity with the format from my dissatisfaction with this book. I had no objection to the reader (as I often do when overhearing my partner's audiobooks), more that this book promises us a quest, but provides... digression, a character with no personality and no arc, and a story that goes nowhere. I suspect if I'd been reading it I would have enjoyed the little B-mor vignettes a bit more, but while barreling down the interstate I just wanted him to get back to Fan and see where she'd go next. Sadly, where she'd go next was pretty much the only thing keeping me interested, like literally where, because she herself undergoes no change at all during the book. The where, the world, was interesting and all, but not interesting enough to make up for the books other deficiencies. A bit of lyrical prose wrapped around not very much at all.
Essentially a dystopian novel set in the not too distant future that is really a mirror of our society today. There are three strata of communities in Lee's view, all perilous and ready to collapse due to environmental causes or the tyranny of corporate greed.
But this novel is also a beautiful story of one real person who isn't sure where or how she should be given all the constraints; she exerts free will even in a world where free will isn't much of a possibility.
It isn't a perfect novel, but there are many worthwhile ideas and bared moments of conscience and fear that feel very real in our own reality.
In the wake of the commercial successes of ‘dystopian’ stories that have leapt from page to screen, the genre has been treated by many contemporary writers as their experimental sandboxes. However, modern dystopia requires a rather formulaic approach by design, so finding a title that effectively throws in a bit of thematic variety is very rare.
The typical formula goes like this: there’s a bleak setting, perhaps a wild landscape that is a by-product of (a) a big catastrophe, (b) an invasion of supernatural or extraterrestrial forces, (c) a deadly war, or (d) the neglect of its lousy stewards—humans. Smack in the middle, imagine surviving human settlements or patches of stratified societies closed off by walls or domes that protect them from the ‘world’. These societies live an unnatural lifestyle crutched by technology, with their governments continually promising to keep them safe. Enter a smart, young, and feisty hero/heroine, who will discover something wrong with the authority. That’s where (s)he will stand up, go beyond the walls, seek the help of the free outsiders, and try to rectify the wrong in the world she lives in.
Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea was introduced to me by fellow readers as a modern dystopian tale that is largely different from its peers. They told me it has the destroyed-world-with-walls setup, but insisted it is something new; they said it has got a young heroine in the forefront, but that it is not exactly catered for the young adult audiences. I was colored curious, so I picked it up. It turned out that the book does follow the typical modern YA dystopia blueprint, but the author twists his style in a way that lets the readers see—or feel—the genre in a new perspective.
In the story, the society is divided into three: the Charters, or the enclave of wealthy and sometimes cutthroat individuals living in grand villages; the lower labor colonists, usually of Asian ethnicity, who were driven away from their pollution-ravaged homes to now toil in providing the necessities of the Charter villages; and the counties people, the ‘uncivilized’ populace living beyond the gates that mark what are supposed the safe zones.
Our protagonist is a tiny teen-aged girl named Fan, a fish tank-diver in the labor colony called B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) who goes beyond the safety of their gates to search for her disappeared lover. Although we have her as the storyline linchpin, the book as a whole does not so much revolve around her as it does around the collective people of B-Mor. This is because the story is narrated in the first-person plural point of view, a powerful “We”.
The unusual POV choice is one of the things that separate On Such a Full Sea from its peers in the genre. It’s new and romantic; it’s friendly and able to establish an instant rapport with the readers. It could have been the story’s main strength only if it did not come twinned with its main weakness: the vague character makeup of Fan.
Whenever readers dive into a fictional world, I think it’s very important for them to have something to latch onto. Give the readers something to care for; give them something to root for. It’s obviously deliberate in Lee’s part to make a heroine out of an ordinary, quiet girl who makes an uncharacteristically bold choice, but if the reasons behind her choice are blurry, if they are just woven from gossipy speculations and blind admiration, her action that officially turned her into a legend loses a degree of impact. It may be an element of the fable structure, but the rest of the ingredients in the tale appear to be sacrificed.
The point is it’s good that the readers may get a fine, refreshingly impersonal, and sympathetically communal voice from the narrator, but it produces multiple blinds that prevent us from seeing what are supposed to be important in a good story. It makes a character, who could be unconventionally charming, a little too flat. The collective storyteller cheers for Fan’s successes, but what exactly for? Stepping out or running from safety is a significant symbolism for the B-Mors, but can its significance ripple through the audiences reading the whole thing?
(Some might argue that Fan did all what she did because of love. But saying that is just that, saying. The readers have never actually felt that love; the narrator is saying they know Fan loved Reg, but it’s all secondhand to the readers. That’s telling instead of showing.)
The world-building would have been spot-on if it weren’t for its loopholes—or should I say its inner mechanisms that are kept secret from the readers. Many questions popped into my head: How did such a society come about? What are the new main laws that such a society must abide by? What are the schemes they are using to keep a strong, surviving society where there is evidently a system for business, trade, and industry while chaos and ruin is running so close on its outskirts? These things, if touched even for just a couple of paragraphs or so, could have provided more concreteness to this universe.
There are so many things that needed to be presented clearly, but I do understand that Lee here is underscoring not the technical aspects of this world but the philosophy and effect of Fan’s actions. There are long passages on destiny, on freedom, on impacts of socio-cultural caste systems on a person's individuality, and on how a small decision of an ordinary girl can make people think again, can make people realize their choice is in their hands, can make people look the other way and remind themselves that they are actually longing for change.
Nevertheless, I loved how ‘romantic' my experience with this book had been. It's like listening to a friendly stranger talk fondly about the life he left miles away; it's like he has so much to say and you have so much to ask but time runs out, so when he leaves, you just let the loose threads of his story them be blown by the wind.
Although Lee succeeded in making me realize there is a refreshing flavor of contemporary dystopia out there, he wasn’t quite able in pulling me completely in his world. Some chapters proved to be engrossing while the others left me thirsty for more. I still think this is a decent read, though. I have heard that Lee’s previous works are much, much better than this, so I’ll definitely try them out.
Dystopian Formula: The future, a collapsing American, a new societal plan, a stratified population, where some profit but others do not. This book has all that, but there is something different about this particular dystopian novel. I absolutely loved it. Sadly, I am not sure if I can explain exactly how it is different. The story is multifaceted, imaginative, visceral, and intriguing,
The book focuses on Fan a member of the labor colony whose members were "imported" from polluted New China. They grow the food and farm the fish for the elite charter communities. Her boyfriend disappears and she leaves B-More to find him. She explores the posh charters and the open counties which house misfits and degenerates.. She encounters a damaged healer, a trope of acrobats, thieves, a disturbing wealthy couple, a kind but mysterious doctor, and a long lost relative. Most of these encounters are rewarding and dangerous all at the same time.
ADDED BONUS: I listened to B.D. Wong narrate this book in his mellifluous voice.
On Such a Full Sea is an impeccably-written, somewhat unsettling novel. Some untold years in the future, the wealthy live in Charter villages that are maintained largely through the efforts of working citizens in labor settlements. Outside these settlements and villages are the counties, swaths of barely civilized land. A girl named Fan leaves one of these labor settlements and sets out for the counties and beyond, searching for her missing boyfriend.
But the story isn't really about Fan. It's told in first person plural, by an uncertain number of B-Mor residents who are up front about the fact that the story they tell may not be factually true. Interspersed with accounts of Fan's travels are depictions of the changing B-Mor she left behind, and the histories and lives of the people she encounters along the way. Fan becomes more legend than person, less a character than an idea, a focal point around which the novel can progress.
And for the most part this works extremely well. Lee is an excellent writer and makes the first person plural seem both natural and easy. His prose is hefty -- the narrators often slide into questions and analyses on identity and change -- but also conversational, adding to the sensation of this being a story told, and retold, until it becomes more legend than fact. Even Fan's position as idea rather than character works throughout most of the story, though it does suffer somewhat whenever her story becomes the primary focus for too long. We never get to know Fan the way we get to know the people she meets along the way; we're always observing her from a distance. At times this distance can be a little off-putting -- sometimes you just want to know why she's doing what she's doing -- but ultimately Lee succeeds in telling a story of a legendary figure that feels like it's a story about everyone else.
A marvel. Lee uses an odd narrative voice: the collective we that is not identified: an ersatz Greek chorus that reflects on the changes in the community of B-Mor launched by the disappearance of Reg, and the short grainy video of our heroine Fan leaving the enclave that goes viral. With this first-person plural narrative choice, Lee is inviting us to pause, reflect and apply our own interpretation of how mythic Fan and Reg become. The tale is set in a possible United States. B-Mor is a family and an organization together. Think hive. Think what may happen to a hive when 2 members are gone but not forgotten. When are we independent? In what ways are we actually free? How do we identify ourselves without a relation to home, community, family, group, coworkers? These are weighty subjects and Lee invites us to breathe these in, while underwater, holding our breath. I don't often wish to be smarter, but I would love to grasp more deeply the sense of self and the sense of community that Lee orchestrates for us. Sublime prose and a mesmerizing subject. Like the mural on the wall in Seneca Charter; multicolored, luminous and enormous.
I love this book. About a young woman living in a future where America is divided into three worlds, the charters of the rich and successful, the industrial or agricultural second class labour communities (Baltimore, or B-Mor in this case - a community of Chinese and mixed Chinese-American labourers), and the open counties (basically the post apocalyptic Wild West), Fan makes a choice to leave her home and everything she’s known when her boyfriend Reg, is taken by the government for his special genes. Narrated by BD Wong in the almost almost omniscient voice of an unnamed B-Mor resident, the story of how Fan makes her way towards her uncertain future, and becomes a folk hero in her community at the same time, is told in a way that is lulling and almost soporific despite the abject horrors that make up much of this tale. Dealing with inequity, environmental ruin, sadism, and the everyday fears that shape us, the book is of the future, but also, not. This book is very odd, and very dark, and yet, it’s also hopeful and fun and compelling. It’s a must-read (must listen!) if you ask me, and it’s kind of a shock and a shame that this is the only book by Lee that falls into this genre.
Is this a dystopia, or is it accurately describing present-day America? You can make either case. Certainly each type of community - the settlements, the Charters, the counties - exists now. Fan was an interesting protagonist. With her flatness and lack of affect, she reminded me of a sweeter version of Lisbeth Salander.
I'm surprised to see the book only has an overall 3.45 rating. (Yes, I know, I gave it 3 stars...but I tend to be a harder grader than most GR-ers.) Like Never Let Me Go, it's obviously being read by swaths of genre readers, dystopia and scifi-fans, who have set expectations. Some of the reviews are finding fault with things like insufficient world-building. Or the fact that it's set in the future, but there isn't really any new technology. This is because it's literary fiction. It's not truly of the genre, it's playing with the genre, adapting it for its own purposes.