[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
I had high hopes for Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea. A literary author turning his hand to a post-apocalyptic tale that would focus less it seems on zombies and cannibals etc., but take the opportunity to make some searing points about class and globalization and other current issues. But as has been the case with a distressingly large number of my reads lately, while I ended up appreciating the starting premise and also what Lee was trying to do, he lost me in the execution.
On Such a Full Sea is set in the not-too-far future U.S., which has roughly broken down along class lines into three segments of society. The one-percenters live in luxurious protected enclaves called “Charters.” Their food, and one assumes other items (we only see the food one), are produced in worker towns. And the rest of the country — wild, dangerous, left to itself, is made up of “the counties.”
The novel is narrated by an unusual plural-first-person: the populace of B-Mor one of those food-producing worker colonies. B-Mor is the former Baltimore, which was near-abandoned until workers were imported from China several generations ago. The protagonist is a young girl named Fan, who does what is nearly impossible to imagine — she leaves B-Mor, seemingly (though it is not clear) in search of her lover Reg, who disappeared soon after the Charters discovered he might be immune to the “C-disease” that everyone has and eventually dies from. Fan’s episodic journey from one settlement type to another and finally to the third is narrated as almost a fable by those she left behind in B-Mor (how they know what happens is left unexplained), both with regard to her adventures but also in regard to the impact her absence has on B-Mor’s community and its relationship to the Charters. As they say: “we can’t help but build upon what is known, our elaborations not fantastical or untrue but at times vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves.”
Her departure’s impact on B-Mor was without a doubt my favorite part of the novel and might have been the only aspect where I felt On Such a Full Sea mostly succeeded. Lee does an excellent job of showing the slow, subtle effects upon the B-Mor community. It is a quiet impact even at its “loudest” moment, and then (perhaps much to many readers’ dismay — it certainly was to those in my reading group), that impact seems to dissipate either entirely or not-so-entirely, depending on one’s interpretation (I fell into the latter category). I liked the slow pace of the change, the quietness of it, the tiny steps forward and backward and I also liked the idea that small, seemingly inconsequential lives and events (Fan + Reg’s disappearance) can ripple throughout a society. Unfortunately, that was, as I said, about the only element of the book I responded positively toward.
Lee spends next to no time on how this America came to be, though there are spot references to global warming, the rise of powerful corporations (especially agri- and pharma- corps). While part of me actually liked the way those sort of things played as mere side allusions in terms of their individual references, I never really felt the world held together as a real one. It felt a bit like the western town at the end of Blazing Saddles. For those unfamiliar with the movie (and shame on you), a better analogy might be as if I picked up the tools/materials of a master carpenter and built a chair that appears fine to the eye, but collapses once someone sits in it. In this case, they were the tools and materials not of a carpenter but a genre-writer. That’s not to say non-genre authors shouldn’t ever pick up a hammer (or FTL drive), but that they might be surprised how much study and practice is entailed in doing it well. In the case of On Such a Full Sea, it just seemed to me that the world, when examined too closely, revealed some cracks and called up some inevitable questions.
While I did like some of the ways Lee used this futuristic setting to make some points about our current society — upper and middle-class competition, testing, our obsession with food purity, the way many of our goods are made by workers in terrible situations — at times the targets felt a bit easy or the targeting a bit too on the nose.
These probably would have been minor complaints had the novel grabbed me more fully, but both the narration style and the characterization had their own issues, meaning they couldn’t make up for the weak world building. I have no issue with the choice of plural first person, as I’ve run across several examples where it works quite well, such as The Virgin Suicides or (if I recall correctly) The Dress Lodger. But here, the voice was just too flat and too often felt either contrived or faux profound, or both.
Fan didn’t help matters, in that she is one of the most passive characters I’ve come across in some time, showing initiative once when she leaves the town (though it’s a very muddied “initiative”) and then only one other time in the entire novel, and that time feeling wholly out of character from what came before or after. Now, I think that part of the reason for this is that narrative voice, for in many ways (perhaps in fact solely that way), she is seen as more symbol that real-life person. Nor is she meant to be heroic; she is a small (literally and metaphorically) person. As the narrators realize: “she is not quite the champion we would normally sing; she is not the heroine who wields the great sword . . . She is one of the ranks, the perfectly ordinary, exquisitely tiny person.” But that makes for a very thin tightrope for an author to walk — to have us engaged by or care much about a character that never really comes alive — and I can’t say Lee succeeded here.
Pacing is a problem, with a very slow beginning, so much so that it was a real struggle to continue. And I say this as one who is generally a fan of slow and quiet. Implausibilities and coincidences mar the plot at various points, which I will not detail so as to avoid spoilers. Though I will mention that simply pointing out via narration that something would be a heck of a coincidence doesn’t actually make it less annoying when it does happen. Really authors. It doesn’t. Trust me.
As I said above, I liked much of what was intended here, especially that portrayal of a small community slowly evolving, but the execution left me more than a little cold. And of the six of us in the book club, I probably responded most positively to it. On Such a Full Sea has garnered lots of praise though, so perhaps you want to keep that in mind. I, however, can’t quite recommend it.