Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Plot: Pregnant teenager Fan sets out to find her missing boyfriend, following his mysterious abduction from their dystopian economic cooperative. In doing so, she must journey through the ecological wasteland that surrounds their settlement, battered by fate until she is admitted into one of the elite Charter cities that rest at the top of the social pyramid. Unsurprisingly, she meets a Dickensian range of characters but remains steadfast in her mission to find Reg and return to the settled, happy life they enjoyed together.
Also, her settlement confrères turn into a pretentious Aeschylean chorus to recount her tales and start rioting in her absence, for some reason (probably authorial).
Verdict: It’s ok; not brilliant, not bad. Read it, enjoy it, forget it.
Pointless verbiage: At first glance, it seems that there are two reasons why you might write a dystopian novel – depending on what sort of author you are, or what you might be interested in writing.
The first is because you’re a committed sci-fi writer with a genuine fascination in what the future holds, and where the radical technologies or concepts that we are only just coming to terms with might take us. Heroes: Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells.
Or you’re a literary writer, with a strong political and ethical drive, who wishes “if only they could just see what they are doing!” and turn your narrative towards materialising that seeing by building a not-quite-ours-but-possibly world for your readers. Heroes: Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut.
Of course the two are not mutually exclusive, or even exhaustive. But the wisdom of the literary cannon tells us that the latter are the true writers; while the former toil in the mines of genre fiction, and only occasionally rise above it. But I think the dirty secret of dystopian fiction is that the opposite is true; while “genre” writers are necessary masters at building worlds and characters which grow in the reader’s minds leading to interesting questions and potential parallels, “literary” writers are generally shit at it. For every Huxley, there’s a Margaret Atwood who demands you wade through flat supporting characters and tired social hierarchies to get to the undergraduate message of their attempt.
In short, literary writers slumming it in the dystopian novel seem to be under the double handicap of mistaking the conventions of the genre as sidelining psychological complexity, while never really rising to the imaginative deployment of concept and context that the great sci-fi writers get right. Still, all generalisations suck – even that one.
Review: Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea falls somewhere into the chasm between those two camps, despite probably belonging less pretentiously to the latter. As a result the novel is entertaining and gripping during the reading, being highly digestible after a hard day but still earning that placement in the literary fiction section – sort of like Dave Egger’s most recent attempts (even I’m not sure if that is a compliment or not, stay posted).
On the face of it, there is the veneer of a challenging novel – with a climate catastrophe in the rear view mirror, and a society that seems to have merged the common stereotypes of Asian industriousness, familial bonds, and obedience to authority with a recognisably western take on consumerism, mall rat-ism, and threatening rednecks on the fringe. The latter fits with Lee’s previous novels Native Speaker and The Surrendered, which also concern themselves with the hybrid subjectivity and the challenges therein. You’ve probably come up with a dystopian novel idea or two in your time, and you’ll find some of them here – the thought of reaping the man-made destruction we’ve sown, but surviving anyway is a common one.
What separates the novelist from us speculators is their ability to animate these context (New-China, in this case) and concepts (a three-tiered society, with a false bottom of security) within the perspective of their characters, to give psychological meaning to impersonal structures. Unfortunately, this is where I found the book most lacking – an Orwellian swing and a miss.
Take the main protagonist Fan, for instance. She is ostensibly the lens through which we examine this potential future, yet Lee immediately severs us from this and establishes the framing device of the Greek chorus of B-Mor residents (the obedient, diligent residents of Fan’s settlement; to which she plays their everywoman). We are still subjects of Fan’s aesthetic experiences:
... she once told us that she almost preferred being in the tanks than out in the air of B-Mor, that she liked the feeling of having to hold her breath and go against her nature, which made her more aware of herself as this mere, lone body.
But we are generally severed from her reflections and left, along with the chorus, to speculate on her intentions or feelings:
This seems amazing, given what we know, for we have to ask ourselves once more: what was she thinking, when she set out from B-Mor in the first place, and in so headlong a fashion?
Lee is still liberal with the reminiscence; allowing Fan to reflect on strange parallels between moments within her current journey and her life in B-Mor. But very little of this tells us about Fan’s psychological journey; indeed, at the end of the novel she remains a cipher into which the chorus project their dissatisfaction with the current economic and social structure of B-Mor. Yet by its nature, the chorus itself in unable to provide this deeper perspective – one is left with the feeling that the dissatisfaction Fan’s exodus ignites fizzles into a list of bargaining concerns, demanding more visits to the doctor and a bigger market for the fish they produce. Lee tilts in the direction of revealing the slow realisations of a collective mind – seemingly meaning to give the chorus real weight – but then gradually drops the device as the plot ramps up and certain early mysteries begin to unfold.
More needs to be said about the chorus; because it is a great writing workshop idea that falls apart over the length of a larger novel. The parallel seems to be to the Greek chorus in Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides; however these choruses are inherently conservative and their role in the play is often to animate the fatal distinction between the attitude struck by the tragic hero(es) and the elements of this attitude that will cause their downfall. Lee’s chorus is by turns mystified in their comfort, incited by Fan’s actions, and rebellious in their intent to defy the hidden authorities of B-Mor. But this comes to very little. Indeed, the chorus regularly avows that it does not understand why this tale unsettles them so; I’d suspect it is told and retold to the benefit of the hidden authorities, as the telling of the tale seems to act as an outlet and ultimately neutralise the ability of the citizens of B-Mor to agitate for change. In the closing pages of the book, there is a sense of resignation to fate – but not in the Greek sense of the immortal will of fate, but in the contemporary human sense of resignation and laziness.
Final complaint about the chorus, I promise and it is an epistemic one: what they seem to know or not know seems to turn on the caprice of the author. This becomes rather sloppily used, so that it can have absolute knowledge of an ex-Charter character it most certainly never met:
Quig, we know, had enjoyed the life of most any other Charter citizen.
But when it comes to visualising the fate of a character well known to the chorus...
So we must picture Reg in a Charter laboratory...
... this penetrating knowledge fails, for the purposes of the poetic. This problem reoccurs throughout the book, where the journey of Fan is known in intimate detail in parts and guessed at in others. Lee makes a gesture at reconciling this inconsistency – mentioning at one point the surveillance camera footage of Fan leaving the camp as a source of knowledge (although how the put-down residents got hold of this is shrugged off) – but quickly abandons this as a doomed task. One simply has to accept that the chorus simply knows sometimes and doesn’t in others; unfortunately emphasising its artificiality as a narrative device (and making it harder to accept that the chorus turns from device to character when it begins to protest the conditions of B-Mor).
And once that plot is exhausted, all feeling drains from the frame; I found I put the novel down, and its interest gradually began to fade. Many examples of dystopian writing suffer from the same problems of characterisation or follow-through, but the core concept at the bottom of the time we spend with that society can be gripping. For example, I’m thinking here of books like Philip K. Dick’s mind stretching Ubik, where the characters and accoutrements of moon colonisation are forgettable; but the voices of the dead from their suspended states, the dissolution of the living and the dead world, and the titular spray which keeps the user’s reality from collapsing stick in the mind as the most haunting of concepts. Unfortunately, most of Lee’s futuristic touches are too recognisable and too forgettable. Sometimes they are downright ham fisted as when Fan out in the wilderness encounters young Eli, who has been brought up on the fringes:
... the skin around his eyes and nose and cheeks inked by the unmitigated open counties sun. No doubt if he lived in a Charter village, where on UV-alert days they project a special scrim into the skies and have public dispensing stations of specially formulated lotions, Eli might have been still unsullied and pink...
Life, it seems, is harder for the poor and unprotected in this society – just like in ours, their skin quality is the first element that seems to suffer. Lee, like Dick and all authors in the genre, suffer from clumsy touches. The substitution of the name B-Mor for the settlement on the ruined site of Baltimore; the reductio ad absurdum of the status anxiety of Charter life as a parallel to modern obsessions with school performance, work performance, social performance where the real consequence is being kicked out of the safety of Charter settlements (and to hammer that in, we meet just such a character who has been expelled, and are regaled extensively, unnecessarily with his back story); a regrettable digression with the chorus explaining the difficulties and persecution faced by “mixed” families of Chinese settlers and local inhabitants. But all this falls away and is forgiven if the virtues of the narrative outshine its sins.
On Such a Full Sea comes close. Frequently, Lee’s writing expresses a simple and pure experience in a way that reminds one of the Zen Buddhist poet Li Po; many of the elements of Lee’s story attain the perfection of polished stone. An early scene in the Charter settlement consists of the most unsettling and haunting imagery, almost ghost-like; it is then weighed down by the requirement of moving Fan from this surreal setting to the next stage of her adventure, and the machinery of the plot tears through the tissue of that beautiful dream he creates.
Ultimately, you will not regret buying and reading this book. Indeed, you may recommend it to friends – but, I suspect, with that tell-tale preamble aimed to lower their expectations and encourage them just to enjoy the beautiful moments. Once the tale of Fan is dispelled, reflection – like mine above – starts to reveal the fissures. More troubling, especially in a genre like dystopian fiction, is that it gradually ceases being memorable.