Book Review: On Such a Full Sea
Chang-Rae Lee’s new speculative novel is too speculative
Published: January 15, 2014
On Such a Full Sea
A post-industrial Baltimore—renamed B-Mor by Chinese immigrants who took over the abandoned rowhouses and use the city as a production site for food for high-end enclaves—is surrounded by anarchic and unruly counties into which a young diver, Fan, escapes to find her missing boyfriend. PEN/Hemingway Award-winner Chang-Rae Lee’s new book, On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead), has a hell of a premise. Unfortunately, it has little but the premise.
Dystopian fiction seems to have taken over the YA market—and there’s a reason for it. Even the great classics of the genre—think 1984 or Brave New World—are typically read by high school students, because once their worlds are elucidated, they don’t offer much in terms of character development, as if all the author’s energy went into constructing worlds and little was left over for the people who inhabit them. There are a few other variations: novels, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which join the noirish thriller with philosophical rumination (it is no accident that the hero’s name, Deckard, sounds like that of the philosopher Descartes), or action/adventure stories, like The Hunger Games and others which, heavy on plot, do so well as movies.
On Such a Full Sea almost succeeds in most of these categories, and so ultimately fails in all. And its failure in each instance is attributable to the same flaw—the narrative voice. For some reason, Lee chose to narrate the book from the first-person plural perspective of the citizens of B-Mor. In both futuristic and historical fiction, the narrators are burdened by having to explain the way a world works, whereas in contemporary realist fiction, the broad parameters of a world can be assumed. Adding an extra layer of distance between the narrator and the reader, then, was a drastic mistake. Every time we are sucked into the world of the book and become invested in the story of Fan—who escapes B-Mor to look for Reg, her missing lover—the story is interrupted by the futuristic version of a “Dear Reader” aside, contemplating the nature of her predicament or something else altogether unrelated in a way that makes the narrator more important than the narrated:
And although we can debate forever whether cruel fate or good fortune is Fan’s predicating sign, it must be noted that when she left us there was no hope or consciousness of either in her mind, nothing but a furious purpose and the capacity to disregard the usual rational considerations of her own well-being and her chances of reuniting with Reg, which were meager at best.
This goes on and on, as if Lee’s guiding motto were “Why let a good story get in the way of dry pondering?” Many readers of the Iliad have been lost by the metaphors where Homer, at the height of battle, compares combat with an extended agricultural scene. Likewise, Lee loves to break in at a crucial juncture—say, when Fan is about to escape a bizarre, pet-like living situation in one of the elite walled villages. Instead of letting the action proceed, Lee allows the unendingly tiresome narrators to go on a speculative two-page excursion into the reason a trend for bald heads might be popping up in B-Mor, which they then tie back to the narrative with a clunky “Is this what the Girls realized when they deemed that Fan must be allowed to go on her destined way?”
Speculative fiction should not be too speculative. And yet Lee oddly cripples his narrators: They know all sorts of details it is certainly not plausible for them to know—about most private actions of Fan and other characters—and yet, when it comes to Fan, they profess ignorance of anything that may distinguish her as an individual. “The question, then, is whether being an ‘individual’ makes any difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.” The narrators raise this question quite early on, and the answer, evidently, is that they do not care, because they follow this question by asking “Did Fan care about such things? We can’t be certain. We know much about her daily life but that still leaves a great deal to be determined. She was perhaps brighter than most, certainly less talkative, but otherwise, in terms of character, not terribly distinctive.” Exactly.
So when you make your protagonist not terribly distinctive and don’t allow your narrators to enter into her mind at all, while giving them free rein to interrupt your potentially winning picaresque narrative as it moves through the dread counties and, even worse, walled villages, what are you left with? The tedious ruminations of a collective B-Mor that are truly the most frightening aspect of this book: If everyone talked like this in our future, I’d just go ahead and jump into the harbor now.
All of which is a terrible shame. Lee’s previous books, such as Native Speaker, demonstrate that he is capable of far better than On Such a Full Sea. And what is worse, this could have been a much better book with very few edits. Perhaps the failure is the result of Lee’s previous success, after which no one felt they could tell him to cut out the dumb stuff. Had someone forced Lee to cut 10,000 unnecessary words of narrative droning, Full Sea could have been a taut, tight picaresque adventure story that really might address some of the issues of class disparity that we actually face in terms of food, education, healthcare, and opportunity. There are some great side characters and stories that are worthy of Dickens—if only they’d found a worthy narrative voice not more interested in its own bloviations than in them. And through these characters and their differences we could have learned—along with Fan—something about what it is to be human in a great coming-of-age tale. But by the end, we don’t know that Fan has learned anything and—because we know we haven’t—we don’t care.
Or maybe the mistake was in the marketing. Perhaps a 14-year-old who has not experienced much of the world would dig this book almost as much as the Hunger Games.
Chang-Rae Lee will read at the Ivy Bookshop on Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. For more information, please visit theivybookshop.com.
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