On Such a Full Sea Book
Whether it’s Colson Whitehead writing about zombies in Zone One or Justin Cronin envisioning the vampire apocalypse in The Passage, we perk up when literary authors tackle unexpected genres. Chang-rae Lee — a PEN/Hemingway award inner and Pulitzer Prize finalist for Native Speaker and The Surrendered, respectively — is best known for realistic fiction about displaced characters of Asian descent. He sets his latest work, On Such a Full Sea, in a chaotic, dystopian America, but I’m happy to report that at its heart it’s still very much another deeply soulful Chang-rae Lee novel.
Like a lot of the end-of-the-world allegories that are popular these days, this one views the fall of civilization through the eyes of a self-possessed teenage girl — in this case, a fishery worker named Fan. Fan lives in B-Mor (formerly Baltimore), a highly regulated industrial town that exists to serve the needs of the Charters, the one-percenters who live in luxurious gated communities. After her boyfriend, Reg, vanishes, Fan leaves the safe confines of B-Mor for the ”counties,” the violent, lawless open country where the least fortunate fend for themselves. Fan’s quiet departure turns her into a Katniss-like symbol of rebellion within B-Mor, but out in the counties she’s vulnerable to an America gone haywire.
The dystopia of On Such a Full Sea isn’t showy. As in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, there’s a welcome absence of sterile white laboratories and grand displays of oppression. instead Lee relies on specific, indelible images — a family of toothless acrobats who feed humans to their dogs, a group of anime-eyed girls held captive in a wealthy Charter woman’s home — and his usual perceptive writing to get at the warped morality that can drive a world into decline. A-
On Such a Full Sea