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On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee, Little, Brown, RRP£13.99/Riverhead, RRP$27.95, 352 pages
It is not the disorderly dystopias that seem to disturb us most. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), set in an apocalyptic future where savagery and survival are one and the same, is somehow too terrifying to truly terrify. The stark physical and moral landscapes of this great novel are so removed from our climate-controlled here and now that we can be entertained by them, free from the push and pull of feeling implicated in their creation.
The Road suddenly feels unthreatening in contrast to Chang-rae Lee’s engrossing new novel. On Such a Full Sea is set in a hyper-civilised future that is far more recognisable by today’s standards, a future in which people are confined to three basic categories: decadent and bland elites who prefer pets and servants to friends and children; quiescent, cheaply satiated labourers who enjoy mindless work and mindless entertainment; and fearful, fearsome migrants and semi-nomads who resent the better-off and reject the whole system.
These divisions sustain a socio-political order in which members of the wealthy and worker castes enjoy homogenised, secure lives in developments known as Charters and Colonies. To do so, all they have to give up in exchange is their individuality, and also any prospect for meaningful human experiences and relationships that could disrupt the profit-and-control dictates of the mega-corporations that run the world. This is a perfect exchange for most of the people in the novel but, of course, not for all.
Novelists who create dystopic fictions often depend upon the same primary device – the lone character who bravely resists the consensus about how the world should be, and in seeking a life outside those terms, exposes the absurdities and dangers of that consensus. With Lee’s fine entry into this tradition, which marks a noticeable development out of the immigrants-searching-for-identity variations of his earlier novels, the spanner in the works is a 16-year-old named Fan. She grows up in a workers’ colony called B-Mor, which has been erected over the urban wreckage previously known as Baltimore. Fan enjoys a simple, stable life as a diver-attendant in aquariums that mass-produce genetically identical healthy and tasty fish. All is fine and well until Fan’s sweet, mild boyfriend Reg mysteriously disappears from B-Mor and she then runs away.
Fan sets forth on a journey where every seeming escape gives way to another potential confinement, whether with the mercenary survivors who live in the Counties, the roughshod and violent netherworld between the Colonies and Charters, or with the perfectly maintained but empty-souled citizens of the Charter cities themselves. In each case, characters befriend Fan, beguiled by her youth, beauty and determination to risk so much by going into the world on her own. But many of these willing hosts reveal themselves to be captors, intent on converting her into currency usable for their own purposes. This pattern sustains a succession of episodes that unsettle in their subtly sinister build-up and exhilarate in their revelation of Fan’s unstinting will to survive and to keep moving.
We never discover for certain what inspires Fan to leave B-Mor in the first place, or even the ultimate purpose of her quest. Instead, we have to rely on what others surmise. The novel is told from the perspective of a collective narrator representing the people of B-Mor; their interest in Fan’s escape and adventures – fuelled by gossip, rumour, confusion, and more than a little admiration and hope that she finds a life better than any of them would have the courage to try for – ultimately reveals more about their lives than hers. As far as the narrator is concerned, Fan becomes a legend in B-Mor because she’s set apart by “a special conviction of imagination” that all the others lack. It is, the narrator puts it, “the very imagination . . . that never seems terribly vital or necessary when things are going right”. Lee signals that a great deal in the Colony is not going right, from minor acts of mass disobedience to a growing number of suicides.
In doing so, Lee critiques how we live today – a defining feature of all dystopic fiction. Lee highlights the way, like the well-off characters in his novel, we are nanosecond-fixated with our various screens, religiously devoted to healthy foods and pharmaceutical regimes and terrified of illness and of outside threats to our security and comfort. And yet, like the collective narrator, we’re susceptible to stories of unexpected struggle and higher-order longings, and to people with that “special conviction of imagination”.
The novel is written in searching, simple diction in keeping with its fable-like quality, and it holds to a determinedly placid, occasionally wonder-filled tone. In Lee’s handling, this is an unexpectedly affecting combination, which reveals moments of human fineness amid a subtle, cosseted terror.
Randy Boyagoda is author of ‘Beggar’s Feast’ (Penguin)