Sunday, June 7, 2015

On Such a Full Sea

Chang-Rae Lee's dystopian picaresque follows the fortunes of Fan, a young fish-tank diver from the factory cities of a somewhat distant future. It may or may not be a postapocalyptic world, because Lee wastes no time with back story, relying on a few allusions from the narrator to let the reader discern that the world has changed.

Fan lives in a regimented town called B-Mor, formerly known as Baltimore when the "natives" lived there. She belongs to a clan descended from the "originals," a population of Chinese immigrants forced to flee New China and now settled in these factory towns to provide food and other products to the "Charters," an upper class that is a mildly extrapolated version of today's. The rest of the population is assigned to a wild and woolly outback known as the "Counties," characterized by Appalachian-like poverty.

The unusual first-person plural narrator makes the novel read like a cross between a Homeric epic and a Greek tragedy, seeming at times to recount the accumulated myth surrounding Fan, her departure from B-Mor and her adventures journeying through the Counties to a Charter village as she seeks her boyfriend Reg, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and her long-lost brother Liwei, who qualified for the dubious honor of being promoted to life in a Charter village.

As with the Greek prototypes, this type of narration gives little insight into the interior life of Fan or any of the other characters, aside from speculation by the narrator about the staged feelings that they might be experiencing. The overall effect is to depict life as a series of random events that we have no control over, and our only response can be to go with the flow and just keep trying to move forward. Indeed, the epigraph the title is drawn from, a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which includes the line "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads onto fortune," and which counsels the reader, "On such a full sea are we now afloat,/And we must take the current when it serves/Or lose our ventures."

There are many lines in the novel itself that are epigraphical. When Fan leaves B-Mor on her adventure she realizes she does not miss the particular individuals in her clan, who live in close quarters with little interaction, but does miss them "in sum." "Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive," interjects the narrator. Referring to the way an Uncle Kellen expressed skepticism about the perfection of life in B-Mor by saying nothing, the narrator says, "You can be affected by a person because of something particular they said or did but sometimes it is how a person was, a manner of being, that gets most deeply absorbed, and prompts you to revisit certain periods of your life with an enhanced perspective, flowing forward right up to now."

It is, in fact, the actions of people, rather than their words, which further Fan along her way, as she lands first with the enigmatic Quinn, a former Charter resident consigned to the Counties when a plague led to a ban of all pets and ended his career as a veterinarian, and then with Mister Leo and Miss Cathy in a chilling Charter episode, until she is rescued by the emergency room doctor Vik and grows nearer to her goal of finding lover and brother.

Despite the artifice of Greek epic, or maybe because of it, the narration sweeps the reader along on a full sea of his or her own as the surprises and twists of Fan's journey -- not least her own unpredictable behavior -- maintains a level of suspense up until the final twist at the end. The writing has an accomplished literary quality that makes it rich and readable at the same time. If Fan remains something of a cipher, the narrator's sympathy for her innocence is infectious and most other characters eke out some sympathy from the reader as well, even when their environment makes them less than admirable.

What is dystopian is the regimentation and stratification of society, the economic apartheid that brooks little mobility between stations in life -- and which seems based in part at least on racial or ethnic origins. Whatever the upheavals that have occurred, society remains relatively intact with a recognizable level of consumer gratification. Even in factory towns like B-Mor, residents have "vids" to watch and use "handscreens" for photos. The inexplicable wave of shortages and discontent that washes over B-Mor is probably much like the impact of a recession in the interior of China, a mystery to inhabitants who have no inkling of the wider economic forces at work. The ultimate sterility of the materialistic Charter villages is outright satire that is painfully close to the reality.

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