Chang-Rae Lee’s novel On Such A Full Sea begins with one of the best openings I’ve read in a while: “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.” At first the apathy of the narrator’s voice is off-putting, but by the time we get to the end of the paragraph, the casualness with which the information is conveyed is piercingly painful. It seems like the narrator is discovering these facts at the same time that we are, experiencing this state of “gone-ness” as if it were brand new. This is a society severed from its past and caught in a stunted present—a dystopia. In Lee’s vision of post-apocalyptic America, the rich live in walled cites called Charters; the descendants of Chinese immigrants work in tightly regulated labor settlements, farming fish and vegetables through aquaponics; and everyone else roughs it in the anarchic Counties. Fan, the novel’s protagonist, lives in the labor village of B-Mor, working as a diver in the fish tanks. When her boyfriend disappears, she decides to leave B-Mor to search for him, and the rest of the book is a chronicle of her quest, her purposeful estrangement from the “someplace” where she is from.
The pattern is old, but the way it’s told is fresh; Fan’s adventures are narrated by the collective citizens of B-Mor. They are a slippery, perplexingly self-aware bunch. At times they seem to believe in their programmatic existence—“there’s little else that’s more important than having a schedule”—and at other times to be doubtful, or anxiously defensive: “Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” This discontent is caused in part by Fan’s departure—no one leaves B-Mor—and the shifts in her narrators’ tone parallel her endlessly shifting journey. Once she walks out of B-Mor, Fan jumps from world to world to world, encountering a cast of characters that includes a mercenary doctor, sinister acrobats, and a house full of human dolls. Her narrators are incredibly drawn to her and care quite a bit about her life in spite of the fact that they take refuge in the very structures that she escapes. In Lee’s characterization of these people, he challenges readers to assess our own positions. We empathize with Fan’s predicaments, but all our knowledge of her is mediated by the reminiscences of the plural narrators with whom, despite what we would like to believe, we probably have more in common. It may seem that an implicit takeaway from this novel, then, is that if we are drawn towards Fan’s story just as the narrators are, we as individuals should find a way to change, to view ourselves like Fan, from a distance, as we really are.
As it turns out, this ideal of the individual as hero is hardly the point. When Fan first encounters a Charter village, a place unlike B-Mor or the wild Counties in how they claim to value individuality, she finds it equally unpleasant. It is described as a society of high-functioning elites that feels not too different from present-day Yale, where the residents push each other on to feats of excellence and achievement. This striving, though, gives way to “that empty-lunged feeling that can come from being measured, unceasingly, from the moment of birth”; the Charters are as deeply indebted to the demands of their culture as the workers of B-Mor, and their pretentions of individuality turn out to be just that: pretentions. Fan’s strategy is to simply keep moving and to leave them all behind.
The narrators, in contrast, are enthralled by history, and in spite of their physical stasis, the telling of it also transforms them. They learn by telling each other about Fan’s experiences, eventually realizing that their community is damaged, and come to an idea of what might someday help it heal. The potential for a better way of life for a whole people does not lie in the heroic actions of a few, but in the collective self-reflection of the many. This is a point that is too often overlooked in dystopic fiction, as well as by the people at institutions like Yale.
By leaving B-Mor, Fan throws it into turmoil, and as its citizens start to come to terms with her departure, they slowly become restless, staging a series of pointless, unplanned protests, or “disturbances,” and behaving with less than normal communal verve. “Who would tell us we are wrong?” they ask at the beginning of the novel. The answer is, strangely, themselves: the sense of wrongness manifests itself in and as a result of their narrative. “Whenever we tell the story of Fan, details are apt to change,” they say. “Try as you might to match the very tone of the telling, the bellow of certain episodes and the half-breathed whisper of others, isn’t it the truth that, despite your fealty to the story, a moment will arise that compels a freelancing, perhaps even rebellious, urge?” As I reluctantly set aside On Such a Full Sea, I can’t help but wonder about the way in which I and the others around me will change the details of our own stories, how we will give way to our own rebellious urges.