Tuesday, January 14, 2014

“A legend can be made, it turns out, one crude stroke at a time.”

On Such a Full Sea
by Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea is the story of Fan. Not just the story… The myth! The legend! It is being narrated—unusually—by the collective, first-person plural voice of the citizens of B-Mor, once Baltimore. (“The nation has collapsed. Once, we had a country of federated states. Now we have charter villages for the rich, and settlements for the not-so-rich. In between are open counties, places of anarchy with no corporate or government protection. We don’t know exactly what happened to our planet, but it’s easy to imagine.”). The tale is being recounted from an indeterminate point in the mid-future. Not so near and not so far. In the world imagined by master craftsman Chang-rae Lee, things are very different and yet disturbingly familiar, all at once. Speak the narrators:
“Whenever we tell the story of Fan, details are apt to change. You don’t mean to alter anything, in fact your intention is the very opposite, you want nothing more than to be an echo of the previous speaker, who, you decide, did a perfectly super job. And 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?”
Fan, it seems, knows from freelancing, even rebellious, urges. At 16, as a skilled diver and citizen of the protected workers facility of B-Mor, her life is far better than most. In sheltered B-Mor, spitting is among the community’s worst crimes. (Though, at one point the narrators ask, “Don’t sanctuaries become prisons and vice versa, foremost in the mind?”) When Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, is called to the Directorate and never comes back, Fan impulsively leaves the safety of B-Mor and strikes out in search of him.
“If she possessed a genius, and a growing number of us think she did, it was a capacity for understanding and trusting the improvisational nature of her will. This might seem a contradictory state, and for most of us it would be. We have hopes and make plans, and if they are dashed or waylaid, we naturally rationalize and redraw the map to locate ourselves anew. Or else we brood and too firmly root. Very few can step forward again and again in what amounts to veritable leaps into the void, where there are no ready holds, where little is familiar, where you constantly get stuck in the thickets of your uncertainties and fears. Fan was different.”
And so Fan embarks on what proves to be a picaresque journey. (“What perverse episode lay ahead for her now?”) Perverse, indeed! What Fan encounters in the open counties is immediately alarming and becomes increasingly shocking along the way. Mr. Lee avails himself of some genre tropes, but his imagination doesn’t stop there. My jaw LITERALLY dropped open at least once while reading. There is plenty of plot here for readers to sink their teeth into.

Character, on the other hand, it trickier in this novel. Readers never get into the head of Fan. She’s a
quiet and somewhat opaque individual. And this makes sense because Fan is, essentially, a fiction. Fan is not a real person, but rather the composite that the citizen-narrators have created. (“Why, in the life of a community, does a certain happening or person become the stuff of lore?”) Furthermore, there’s no clear way that these interested parties can know the details of what actually occurred to Fan after she left. The entire tale is suspect.

In discussing this novel’s collective voice, comparisons have been made to works by Jeffrey Eugenides, Joshua, Ferris, and everyone in between. But the book that immediately came to my mind was Hannah Pittard’s underrated The Fates Will Find Their Way. It, coincidentally, is also the collectively-voiced imaginings of a community in the wake of a 16-year-old girl’s disappearance. You know what they say, there are only so many stories. And while that may be true, there are an infinite number of ideas, and this novel is chock-full of insightful observations not only about Fan’s world, but our own. Mr. Lee has not built his world of whole cloth. Rather, he’s paid careful attention to the (mis)direction in which we are heading. There is sly commentary on the environment, government, immigration, healthcare, privilege, race, and so much more.

Beyond plot, character, and ideas, there is language, and here Mr. Lee is pure genius! The language spans from colloquial to eloquent and reading it was a joy from start to finish. I found myself truly savoring passages. And so it is, I’ll leave the final word on this book to Mr. Lee and his narrators:
“The funny thing about the tale of Fan is that much of what happened to her happened to her. She showed plenty of her own volition. Really, more than any of us could ever dream up. And yet at the same time, her tale demonstrates how those who met her, often took it upon themselves to help her, without, really, any hesitation. Without always a ready self-interest. Every once in a while there are figures who draw such attention. Even when they aren’t especially charismatic, or visionary, or subtly, cleverly aggressive in insinuating an agenda into the larger imagination. For some reason, we want to see them succeed. We want them to flourish. Even if that flourishing is something we’ll never personally witness. They draw our energy so steadily and thoroughly, that only toward the finish of events can we recognize the extent of our exertions, and how those exertions, in some, might have taken the form of a movement.”


  1. I have this on my to-read list! I read Native Speaker years ago when it came out, but I'm not sure I've read anything else of Lee's, though I intended to. I loved that book!



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