Tough to con­nect with char­ac­ters in in­trigu­ing, dystopian tale

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ariel Gor­don

AMER­I­CAN nov­el­ist Chang-rae Lee writes what could be called Ivy League fic­tion. Af­ter do­ing an MFA at Yale, his first novel, 1995’s Na­tive Speaker, won the Hem­ing­way Foun­da­tion/PEN Award. Since then, on top of his work teach­ing creative writ­ing at Prince­ton, Lee has writ­ten a book ev­ery four or five years, which cul­mi­nated in a Pulitzer Prize nom­i­na­tion in 2010 for The Sur­ren­dered. Lee’s most re­cent book, the dystopian On Such a Full Sea, rep­re­sents a de­par­ture for the Korean-born writer. Hav­ing writ­ten about the in­ter­sec­tions of class and race in books that ref­er­enced Korean com­fort women dur­ing the Sec­ond World War ( A Ges­ture Life) and or­phan­ages in post-Korean War South Korea ( The Sur­ren­dered), Lee has aban­doned spe­cific his­to­ries for imag­ined ones, and race for class. This shift is front and cen­tre in the book’s open­ing pas­sage: “It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that any­more. We think, Why bother? Ex­cept for a lucky few, ev­ery­one is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone.” So, in­stead of the United States of Amer­ica, we have the As­so­ci­a­tion of Char­ter Vil­lages, run by multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions in­stead of gov­ern­ments. The vil­lages are home to the up­per class and ul­tra-rich. Mid­dle-class peo­ple live in di­rec­torates, which are ba­si­cally com­pany towns, pro­duc­ing goods for Char­ter cit­i­zens such as fish raised in tanks and veg­eta­bles cul­ti­vated in green­houses. On Such a Full Sea’s main char­ac­ters, a young cou­ple named Fan and Reg, were born and raised in B-Mor, a direc­torate as­signed to a group of im­mi­grants from China, which is close to the Char­ter vil­lage Seneca. Though there are few perks in the di­rec­torates, there is the se­cu­rity of (crowded) hous­ing and (in­creas­ingly lim­ited) med­i­cal care. Lower-class peo­ple live in the open coun­ties, where there are no il­lu­sions: If you can’t af­ford some­thing, you try to take it by force. A cyn­i­cal reader would note here that this state of af­fairs isn’t that dif­fer­ent from our cur­rent cir­cum­stances... but what is dif­fer­ent is that the cit­i­zens of Lee’s imag­ined world all even­tu­ally con­tract C, or can­cer. And Reg, a gan­gly 19-year-old gar­dener, is some­how C-free. When med­i­cal tests re­veal this fact, he is whisked away by ad­min­is­tra­tors. Fan, a diminu­tive 16-year-old tankdiver, re­solves to find him and leaves B-Mor for the out­lands. She doesn’t have any inkling where he might be, but leav­ing seems to be a log­i­cal first step. She spends the rest of the novel mov­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion from most up­wardly mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion res­i­dents: from B-Mor to the out­lands to Seneca, a Char­ter vil­lage.

In­ter­est­ingly, although Fan spends lit­tle to no time in B-Mor, her story is nar­rated by a direc­torate res­i­dent who prefers the first-per­son plu­ral. He is the one who de­scribes the ins and outs of As­so­ci­a­tion society, who re­flects on the changes to B-Mor af­ter the dis­ap­pear­ance of Reg and the de­par­ture of Fan, and who tries to make sense of all their lives. So the ques­tion re­mains: is On Such a Full Sea a fully formed dystopia? A fully formed fic­tion? While Lee’s imag­ined world has some in­ter­est­ing flour­ishes and some in­ge­nious ideas, it never co­a­lesces into a com­pletely con­vinc­ing whole. And while it is mas­ter­fully writ­ten, in Lee’s trade­mark for­mal dic­tion and elab­o­rate, slightly over­writ­ten sen­tences, ul­ti­mately we know Fan and Reg the way our anony­mous nar­ra­tor does: by name and in pass­ing. Although On Such a Full Sea prob­a­bly won’t be counted among Chang-rae Lee’s suc­cesses, it does make for a most in­ter­est­ing de­par­ture. Ariel Gor­don is a Win­nipeg writer whose sec­ond col­lec­tion of po­etry, Stow­aways,

will be launched May 21.

On Such a Full Sea

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