Chang-Rae Lee's fifth novel, set in a dystopian future of environmental and moral collapse, is a departure of sorts for the Korean-American author. From his debut, Native Speaker, to 2010's The Surrendered, Lee has depicted immigrants and first-generation Americans negotiating questions of assimilation.
On Such a Full Sea features elements that wouldn't be out of place in sci-fi or horror stories but it too concerns a protagonist who exists on the peripheries of a society that is demarcated by caste. Like Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Lee re-examines his longstanding interests by imagining the aftermath of our civilisation's downfall and, similar to Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go, creates a world that is both dully familiar and disturbing enough to make us grateful that we live in more humane times. But, he asks, how long will that last?
In B-Mor, an enclosed settlement of labourers of Chinese descent, built on the ruins of Baltimore, 16-year-old Fan works as a "diver", farming fish which will be consumed by the elite "Charter" caste. "We labour hard for certain but the work is rote and our tomorrows are most settled," says the chorus of "B-Mors" who narrate the novel. The B-Mors imagine Fan's fortunes after she escapes to search for her boyfriend Reg and brother Liwei. They admit that their version of her experiences is "vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves." However, Lee's relaxed prose lulls the reader in to a false sense of security as he explores the nature of storytelling and, in particular, the ways that we collaborate in our own deception.
The story is slow to get going and accounts of B-Mor's decline after Fan's departure are laboured. Events accelerate when Fan enters "the counties" where America's poor live. She is run over by an outlaw doctor who treats her wounds and she recuperates at his medical commune until he sells her to a sinister Charter couple. Populated by business leaders and surgeons, the gated Charter village where Fan lives is a luxurious bubble which floats free from the rest of society. However, while minimal upward social mobility is permitted –"No leaping of worlds in this world" – even the wealthiest Charters live in fear of ruin and banishment to the counties.
Confined to a single room by her captors, Fan and seven other women counter their claustrophobia by painting a mural of scenes from their lives. "What they made was a portrait. Or a portrait of sorts," say the B-Mors. From these dizzying passages, Fan emerges as a young woman who is isolated and vulnerable because she has defied her society's expectations in the belief that her life can be exceptional. In this she resembles Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, but as this allusion is taking root, the atmosphere shifts and Fan escapes to the type of dysfunctional suburban setting that's often dissected in contemporary realist fiction.
On Such a Full Sea is a strange, skilful performance by a novelist who is brave enough to consistently subvert our expectations of narrative continuity. In Lee's future, the past is opaque and Fan never stays long anywhere, leaving places and people behind as soon as they become familiar. Yearning for both rootedness and transcendence breaks through the surface, however, when the B-Mors salute Fan's endeavour: "Isn't this what we also fear and crave simultaneously, that some internal force which defies understanding might remake us in to the people we dream we are?" By the end, we have been moved to consider what is lost when we fail to be brave.