March 12, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 11

Arts & Entertainment

Never-ending end times

By Mike Wold / Contributing Writer

Book Review: On Such a Full Sea / By Chang-rae Lee

For all its creative experimentation and philosophizing, Lee’s novel ends up as a shaggy dog tour of a future that’s been made familiar through too many books and movies

Illustration by Derek Gundy

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The post-apocalyptic novel has come into its own, with such notable writers as Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood and, now, Chang-rae Lee contributing their versions of the coming dystopic future.

Lee follows the typical plot. His young heroine, Fan, sets out from relative safety, undergoes adventures and meets challenges for a worthy goal: In this case, to rescue her missing boyfriend. Like many of the genre, it is a variation on mythologist Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey.

The future that Lee portrays is also a common post-apocalyptic one, bearing a marked resemblance to the “Corpocracy” in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. Even as civilization collapses, a scum of super-rich rulers lives off tightly controlled workers, with oppressive security forces keeping out the barbarians from a lawless hinterland — an exaggeration of the present, with the chaotic conditions of an Afghanistan or Somalia applied to the rural United States.

Lee, a creative writing professor at Princeton, naturally wouldn’t have been content to write a standard science fiction opus. Nor does he try to improve on the genre by introducing higher standards of characterization and plot. Rather, he plays with the plot and narrative voice to try to say something about the elements of story and the way we live in this society.

But to really subvert an established genre, you first should understand that genre. In good sci-fi, the setting is often the main character and always an important one; it needs to be developed and understood and be as plausible as any of the actual people. Lee’s version of the post-apocalyptic world is implausible. For example, it’s not clear how the U.S. has managed to maintain an infrastructure for private automobiles for a century after its population and much of its economy have collapsed, or what the source is of the resources that support the super-rich flying their private jets. 

The same kind of inconsistency applies to Lee’s heroine’s journey. A descendent of Chinese refugees who were hired as contract workers and resettled in a depopulated Baltimore (“B-Mor”), her story is narrated by the collective unconscious of her people. The idea is clearly to portray how a legend is created by all of us. But a fairy tale — the literary form used by the collective unconscious — isn’t the same as omniscient narration. While B-Mor’s narration leaves Fan’s character slightly opaque, as might be expected from a fairy tale, Lee’s voice switches unpredictably between mythic and omniscient, with the odd result that we understand most of the other characters better than we do Fan herself. This is particularly true once Fan, one of those tightly controlled workers, enters into the “Council” society of the mostly miserable and competitive rich.

Lee’s “ordinary” people, as represented by Fan and her community, are an almost faceless collectivity. In contrast, the rich people Fan gets to know are leading full, if desperately competitive, lives of their own, not unlike the lives you might find among Ivy League academics like Lee. It’s a thoroughly upper-class viewpoint. Lee isn’t unsympathetic to his heroine or where she comes from — but it doesn’t seem that he really understands her or the people of B-Mor in the way he understands the people who rescue her.

This is not to say that the story isn’t interesting. Lee takes us on what seems a prearranged tour of the dystopic landscape, touching on veterinarians turned doctors, endemic diseases, a murderous family of circus performers, child rape and young girls kept as pets. Horrific as it sounds, the smooth, unemotional narration makes it all seem some new kind of normal, and perhaps that’s his point: “Fan would have expected that one or two of the Girls would have long rebelled at spending a life in a room … but the funny thing about this existence is that once firmly settled we occupy it with less guard than we know.” Lee continues, “We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks. … Until at last we take our places at the wheel, or wall, or line, having somewhere forgotten that we can look up.”

But that bit of philosophy is, again, the voice of B-Mor, which helplessly deplores its collective acceptance of its own lot and the fact that occasional resistance to the dystopic order fades as easily as summer turns into fall. Lee’s portrayal of its people seems a bit like blaming the victim, especially if one remembers that even fiction set in the future is, ultimately, in some sense about the present. One wonders what Lee’s opinion is of the rise and fall of resistance to our own present-day dystopia, as embodied in, say, the Occupy movement.

Fan, who starts her journey as a strong, fearless heroine, seems to become increasingly passive, to the extent that people around her start sacrificing themselves to aid her quest. Ultimately her journey, after all its adventures, gets diverted before she ever reaches her goal. For all its creative experimentation and philosophizing, Lee’s novel ends up as a shaggy dog tour of a future that’s been made familiar through too many books and movies. The reader could expect better.

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