Navigating the Mostly Difficult World of Chang-Rae Lee

Lee Polevoi


On Such a Full Sea

By Chang-Rae Lee


352 pages


Novelist Chang-Rae Lee recently described his decision to use first-person plural as the voice of his new dystopian work, On Such a Full Sea. “The thing about the plural voice is that, once instituted, you realize there are really no rules about what might limit its point of view,” Lee said. “All perspectives are elastic, but this one can be even more flexible.”


The decision proves to be a masterstroke, since one of the chief pleasures of On Such a Full Sea is the anxious, reflective, self-questioning and cautiously prideful “chorus of We” that tells the story of Fan, a 16-year-old fish-tank diver in a highly stratified, post-apocalyptic America. The collective voice emanates from B-Mor, “once known as Baltimore,” whose inhabitants are charged with raising fish and vegetables to feed the elite Charter villages, located across a vast, lawless territory called the “open counties.”


Fan’s skill in nurturing the fish is emblematic of the community’s ability to thrive in “this mostly difficult world.” But the relatively placid environment is disrupted when Fan’s boyfriend Reg is taken away, possibly for use in medical experiments, and she sets out to find him. Her quest takes her out across the open counties where all sense of community has been jettisoned for a ruthless drive for survival, and where her safety is repeatedly placed at risk.


Fan’s departure coincides with an apprehensive feeling among the residents of B-Mor. Early on, while people are pleasantly shopping in one of the subterranean malls, a power outage occurs:


“ … there arose in the dimness a distinct odor of cave, which was not so awful as it was alarming, for you couldn’t help but realize that we were lodged in the innards of the realm. Eventually people stopped what they were doing and looked about, their mouths half open, awaiting an announcement. None came. Suddenly some people started running, the trigger unclear, and before you knew it, everyone was racing about, toddlers desperately yanked along, the elderly panting and trying to claw through the scattershot mobs, the young and fit sprinting as if the dogs of hell were chasing them. What panic in those corridors! What knife-in-the-heart terror!”


Not surprisingly, Fan’s search for her lost lover leads to dangerous situations in the open counties. Though she befriends Quig, a charismatic figure and ex-occupant of Charters, the matriarch of the area, Loreen, despises her and wants to sell her off for whatever profit she might bring. On their journey, they encounter a family of acrobats, part of a traveling circus, who generously share their food and lodging for the night. Only gradually does Fan realize that she and her companions have been poisoned, for very dire reasons:



“It was then she was drawn to something bright in the weeds. It was a bone, long and pitted and bleached white from the sun, scarred and gouged down its length by chew marks. She figured it was the dog’s plaything and picked it up, surprised at how heavy it was, when she realized she was standing in a veritable field of bones, most of them tiny and broken, like bits of branch and stone, with only some of them as large as the one she held.”


Sometime later, Quig takes Fan to the Charter village of Seneca, where they are welcomed into the home of Mister Leo and Miss Cathy, for reasons at first unclear. Too late, Fan realizes she has been traded into indentured servitude with this exceedingly odd and menacing couple – and that her service includes obligations of a sexual nature to Mister Leo:


“As they walked to the other end of the house, he cupped her shoulder and then the back of her neck, and she tensed at the weight of his cool, strong grip, He was the same height as Quig, but he seemed to loom much higher as he opened the door to his darkened office, only the dance of the numerous screensavers murkily lighting the room, which now looked like the waters of her awful dream.”


These episodes amply demonstrate Chang-Rae Lee’s gift for creating suspenseful narratives and moments where acts of kindness transform into shocking savagery. But suspense in and of itself appears not to be his primary interest. The story’s forward momentum, halted from time to time by the B-Mor narrators’ philosophical ruminations, drops off markedly in the final third of the novel. It ends on a tentatively optimistic note, but at the expense of an urgency that characterized so much of what went on before.


Still, On Such a Full Sea is an exceptional achievement, distinguished by strikingly elegant prose.  This is a novelist whose work demands our attention.



Author Bio:

Lee Polevo, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of The Moon in Deep Winter, a novel.

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