When literary authors try their hand at genre fiction, somehow they never end up writing romance novels. Typically, they either are in a murderous frame of mind, à la John Banville and Kate Atkinson, or the future beckons them with a bleak and cautionary finger. (Usually, Big Brother could make himself quite at home, although at least there usually aren’t rat cages that fit over people’s faces.)
Pulitzer Prize finalist Chang-rae Lee joins the ranks of dystopic prophets such as Cormac McCarthy (“The Road”), Margaret Atwood (her “Oryx and Crake” trilogy), and Kazuo Ishiguro (“Never Let Me Go”) with his exquisitely written new novel, On Such a Full Sea. While no one would accuse the book of wide-eyed optimism, it’s still less nihilistic than Lee’s 2011 novel, “The Surrendered.”
With his new novel, Lee takes familiar themes of individualism, income inequality, and the immigrant experience, and then places them in a surreal future that takes plenty of cues from last week's woes.
Environmental degradation has led what’s left of society to divide into three tightly defined strata. At the top are the Charters, who hoard the remaining resources and live genteel, anxious lives in gated cities. Their food and goods are created in labor colonies such as B-Mor, which we know as Baltimore, populated by settlers from New China. There, they grow perfect fish and beautiful vegetables for the consumption of the Charters, who scrutinize every morsel that goes into their mouths with an intensity that would shame a Whole Foods shopper. Then there are the counties, a vicious, hard-scrabble world of rickety vehicles and suspect canned goods. The counties operate on violence and barter – people are the top commodity and the unofficial motto is “You better have it while you have it.”
Fan, a tiny teenage free diver who can hold her breath for several minutes at a time, leaves the safety of B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who was scooped up by a Charter security team for medical study. “He was the sort of kindly, dreamy boy who is prevailed upon by whim and instinct, and if he sometimes found trouble, it was always the charming kind,” say the book’s narrators, the left-behind residents of B-Mor, for whom Reg and Fan become the stuff of legend.
Sweet, goofy Reg, however, was of interest to the directorate on a genetic level, since he tested free of the C-taint that ultimately kills everybody. (Lee never specifies, but the disease sounds quite a bit like cancer.) The B-Mors accept their fate stoically, since their health plans only cover six days in a hospital and they can’t afford additional treatments, but Charters throw all their considerable resources into putting off the inevitable.
As she travels, Fan meets the Counties residents, including Quig, a former Charter resident whose family was sent into exile and who now provides such medical care as is available, for a price. She also finds her way to Seneca, a Charter in upstate New York, where she meets wealthy Charters and girls who have been surgically altered to look like anime characters.
Lee writes in the first person plural as the rest of the B-Mors obsess about Fan’s adventures, which they follow via chat rooms and vid screens and their own collective imaginations.
“We can’t help but build upon what is known,” they say, elaborating on the way a story changes every time it’s told, “our elaborations not fantastical or untrue but at times vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves.”
People rarely leave B-Mor, except through death or suicide. Before Reg was kidnapped by the state, the only ones who got out were the occasional 12-year-old who scored in the Top 2 percent of the country on the national exams. The last one, about 20 years before, was Fan’s older brother.
“Stability is all here in B-Mor,” the narrators explain. “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.”
The residents seek safety in routine, they confide: "routine is the method, and the reason, and the reward." They find solace in small pleasures like a sweet drink with friends or videos on their handhelds. Before Reg was taken, they say, they were mostly able to ignore the fact that fate, at any minute could grab them up, like a mouse in a falcon’s talons, leaving them staring at their last footprint in the dirt.
“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.”
Fan’s courage, therefore, electrified the community. She leaves with no weapons, few supplies, and her one notable talent, diving, doesn’t really come in handy on the road. (More useful is the fact that her small size makes her appear years younger than she is, making people mistake her for a child.) While the B-Morians see her as the symbol of a movement, Fan wasn’t trying to start a rebellion. She just wants Reg back.
“The question, then, is whether being an ‘individual’ makes a difference anymore,” the narrators wonder.
“On Such a Full Sea” uses its muted tone and elegant writing to examine whether one person can really change the world. The conclusion it comes to is rather different than all those other dystopic novels out there featuring courageous teenage girls. The novel is unlikely to inspire any blockbuster movies or hairdos – just a feeling of deep disquiet.
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.