“I've never been a fan of grand hyperbolic declarations in book reviews, but faced with On Such a Full Sea, I have no choice but to ask: Who is a greater novelist than Chang-rae Lee today?”—Porochista Khakpour, The Los Angeles Times
From the beloved award-winning author of Native Speaker and The Surrendered, a highly provocative, deeply affecting story of one woman’s legendary quest in a shocking, future America.
On Such a Full Sea takes Chang-rae Lee’s elegance of prose, his masterly storytelling, and his long-standing interests in identity, culture, work, and love, and lifts them to a new plane. Stepping from the realistic and historical territories of his previous work, Lee brings us into a world created from scratch. Against a vividly imagined future America, Lee tells a stunning, surprising, and riveting story that will change the way readers think about the world they live in.
In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class—descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China—find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement.
In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears. Fan’s journey to find him takes her out of the safety of B-Mor, through the anarchic Open Counties, where crime is rampant with scant governmental oversight, and to a faraway charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend to those she left behind.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.62(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.18(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:July 29, 1965
Place of Birth:Seoul, Korea
Education:B.A. in English, Yale University, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Oregon, 1993
Read an Excerpt
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. You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance. Rooftops a mess of wires and junk. The river tea-still, a swath of black. And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, a smell, you think, you don’t want to breathe in.
So what does it matter if the town was razed one day, after our people were trucked out? What difference does it make that there’s almost nothing there now? It was on the other side of the world, which might as well be a light-year away. Though probably it was mourned when it was thriving. People are funny that way; even the most miserable kind of circumstance can inspire a genuine throb of nostalgia.
The blood was pumping, yes? Weren’t we alive!
You can bet that where we live now was mourned, too, in its time, and though it may be surprising to consider, someday this community might be remembered as an excellent place, even by those of us who recognize its shortcomings. But we don’t wish to dwell on the unhappier details. Most would agree that any rational person would leap at the chance of living here in B-Mor, given what it’s like out there, beyond the walls. In the open counties. And even those relative few who’ve secured a spot in the Charter villages might find certain aspects of life here enviable, though they would definitely never say so.
We, on the other hand, will offer this: you can rely on the time here, the tread of the hours. If you think about it, there’s little else that’s more important than having a schedule, and better yet, counting on that schedule; it helps one to sleep more soundly, to work steadily through one’s shift, maybe even to digest the hearty meals, and finally to enjoy all the free time available to us, right up to the last minutes of the evening. Then, if the stars are out—and they do seem to be out most every night now—we can sit together in our backyards and wave a hand to neighbors over the fences and view our favorite programs while sitting in the open air and authentically believe that this stretch of sky sings its chorus of light for us alone.
Who would tell us we are wrong? Let them come forward. Let them try to shake our walls. Our footings are dug deep. And if they like, they can even bring up the tale of Fan, the young woman whose cause has been taken up by a startling number of us. She’s now gone from here, and whether she’s enduring or suffering or dead is a matter for her household, whatever their disposition. They are gone, too, transferred to another facility in the far west, the best scenario for them after the strife she caused.
We can talk about her openly because hers is no grand tragedy, no apocalypse of the soul or of our times. Yes, there are those who would like to believe otherwise; that each and every being in the realm is a microcosm of the realm. That we are heartened and chastened and diminished and elevated by a singular reflection. This is a fetching idea, metaphorically and otherwise, most often enlisted for promoting the greater good. But more and more we can see that the question is not whether we are “individuals.” We can’t help but be, this has been proved, case by case. We are not drones or robots and never will be. The question, then, is whether being an “individual” makes a difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.
Did Fan care about such things? We can’t be certain. We know much about her daily life but that still leaves a great deal to be deter-mined. She was perhaps brighter than most, certainly less talkative, but otherwise, in terms of character, not terribly distinctive. Nor would anyone have thought that she could do the thing she did. Such a lamentable action!
She did stand out physically, and not because she was beautiful. She was pleasing enough to look at. She was tiny, was the thing, just
150 centimeters (or not quite five feet tall), and slim besides, which made her the perfect size for her job in the tanks. At sixteen she had the stature of a girl of eleven or twelve, and thereby, when first encountered, she could appear to possess a special perspective that one might automatically call “wisdom” but is perhaps more a kind of timelessness of view, the capacity, as a child might have, to see things and people and events without the muddle of the present and all it contains. Perhaps Fan truly had that kind of clarity, and not just a semblance of it.
But if we may, let us picture her before the trouble, just as she was, clad in black neoprene, only the pale gleam of her bare feet and hands and face to indicate her humanity. Once she pulled on gloves and flippers and her eye mask, she looked like a creature of prey, a sleek dark seabird knifing into the waters. Of course, that’s not what she did in the tanks, where her job was to husband and nurture the valuable fish that allow our community to do so well in this mostly difficult world. She was one of the best in her function as a diver, easily able to hold her breath for two minutes or more while she scrubbed and vacuumed and replaced tubing and filters, and patched whatever tears had formed in the linings, a half-weight vest to hold her beneath the surface. Even that was almost too heavy for her and she would have to bend her knees while at the bottom of the two-meter-deep water and propel herself upward to breathe, before descending again, her various tools attached to her work belt.
Once submerged, a diver is not easily seen. Given all the fish in the water—naturally as many healthy fish are raised as possible—she is a mere shadow among them, trained to do her tasks quickly and unobtrusively. That is why she uses no special breathing apparatus aside from a snorkel, compressed gases causing too much of a disturbance. Fearful fish are not happy fish. The diver is not “one of them” but is part of the waterscape from the time they are hatchlings, and they see her customary form and the repeated cadence of her movements and the gentle motor of her flippered feet that must come to them like a motherly lullaby. A dream-song of refuge, right up to the moment of harvest. The diver is there at harvest, of course, and sees to it that the very last of them finds its way into the chute. And it is only then, for the span of the few hours while the tank is being cleaned and filtered before the next generation of hatchlings is released, that the water is clear of activity, that the diver is alone.
How somber a period that must be. The constant light from the grow bulbs filtering through the canopy of vegetables and herbs and ornamental flowers suspended above the tanks throws blue-green glints about the facility walls, this cool Amazonian hue that suggests a fecundity primordial and unceasing. The diver inspects each aquarium, which is roughly the dimension of a badminton court, and by the end she is exhausted not by the work or holding her breath but instead from the strange exertion of pushing against the emptiness. For she is accustomed to the buoying lift of their numbers, how sometimes the fish seem to gird her and bear her along the tank walls like a living scaffold, or perhaps lead her to one of their dead by swarming about its upended corpse, or even playfully school them- selves into just her shape and become her mirror in the water. At the pellet drop they are simply fish again and thrash upward, mouths agape, the vibrato of the water chattering and electric, as if bees were madly attempting to pass through her suit. And wouldn’t it be truth enough to speak of those bristling hundreds as not only being cared for by the diver but as serving to shepherd her, too, through the march of days?
For who is she, given the many hours she and all the other members of her household spend at their jobs and how generally sparse their conversation is during downtime or when they’re having their morning or evening meal while watching a vid or game? All around B-Mor it’s much the same, which is happy enough. But maybe it’s the laboring that gives you shape. Might the most fulfilling times be those spent solo at your tasks, literally immersed or not, when you are able to uncover the smallest surprises and unlikely details of some process or operation that in turn exposes your proclivities and prejudices both? And whether or not there is anything to be done about it, you begin to learn what you value most.
For Fan, more than the other divers, took to the tanks with a quiet abandon, rarely climbing out at the ending hour to peel herself of the suiting in the changing room with the others. She would appear just as they were leaving for home, or if she didn’t and they grew concerned, someone would go to her tanks and check that she was still working. For divers have perished from time to time, as they can believe too well that they are one of the throng. But Fan would be there, simply swimming about, scrubbing or patching, and the other diver would splash the water and wait until Fan surfaced with a thumbs-up. She once told us that she almost preferred being in the tanks than out in the air of B-Mor, that she liked the feeling of having to hold her breath and go against her nature, which made her more aware of herself as this mere, lone body. In the hour or so after the shift, with no more tasks to be done, she would pull her knees to her chest and drift to the bottom and stay there in that crouch until her lungs screamed for forgiveness. She wasn’t inviting oblivion or even testing herself but rather summoning a different kind of force that would transform not her but the composition of the realm, make it so the water could not harm her. And we would say, Please, Fan, please, you cannot truly believe this, and she would almost smile and mostly nod but the impression you were left with was that she did, in fact, believe in such a possibility. And if that is an indication of her instability, everything else that happened makes sense and no more needs to be accounted for.
But let’s suppose another way of considering her, which was that she had a special conviction of imagination. Few of us do, to be honest. We wish and wish and often with fury but never very deeply. For if we did, we’d see how the world can sometimes split open, in just the way we hope. That it and we are, in fact, unbounded. Free.
Not that this means Fan was wholly in the right. Though we will not say this of her boyfriend, Reg. He was just anybody else, in most people’s view, except perhaps that he was tall and had the most beautiful skin one might ever see. This sounds silly, but this was Reg, in a phrase. His skin was the color of a smooth river stone, though one that’s lighter than those around it, a wheat-brown, buttery hue that seemed to glow warmer in the pale illumination of the grow facility. That’s where they met, as he took care of the deck of vegetables that perched over her tanks. His long arms could easily reach the inner sections to plant and pollinate, prune and harvest, and it’s a fetching image of the two of them, he standing high on his ladder that rolled side to side on a track, she paddling in the cool waters below, both at labor for the good of our community like any responsible pair.
Workers in the grow facility regularly become romantically involved, there’s no rule or code against it, and there are probably dozens of families in our part of B-Mor originating from such unions; we ourselves derive from two of the first generations of growers, this well before the fish tanks were laid in. Stability is all here in B-Mor; it’s what we ultimately produce, day by night by day, both what we grow for consumption and how we are organized in neighborhood teams, the bonds of blood or sexual love relied upon equally to sup- port our constitution. In this difficult era the most valuable commodity is the unfailing turn of the hours and how they retrieve for us the known harbor of yesterday, and in this sense, too, there was really nothing to alarm about Fan and Reg, who were just another estimable couple, if almost comically mismatched in height as they strolled the neighborhood on the more pleasant evenings.
But one day, toward the end of the shift, Reg was told to go speak to the manager. Fan didn’t even notice him leaving; there was no reason to. People are called in all the time to be informed of some minor change in schedule or procedures. This is likely what one would assume as you took off your gardener’s gloves and ascended the stairs to the manager’s mezzanine office filled with screens and controls. For example, there will be a switch-out of this fish or vegetable for another, depending on what’s in demand in the Charter villages. Recently there was a call for Japanese knotweed because it supposedly prevents certain blood Cs, so now at each meal every Charter adult and child eats Japanese knotweed, kilos of which anybody can easily pull from the ground beyond the walls but which, of course, being out there, no one would ever touch.
Reg was summoned from his ladder the day before his free-day.
On free-day, Fan was seen sitting by herself in the park, listening to music through her earbuds. She didn’t appear distraught; apparently Reg (or else somebody posing as Reg) had messaged her to say that he was occupied, no further explanation, and would see her the next day. His family was unconcerned; Reg was known to wander, some- times even beyond the walls. It’s not that he was reckless or dim- witted, though it must be said that Reg was never going to ace the Exams, not in a millennium. In fact, he didn’t even bother to take them. He was the sort of kindly, dreamy boy who is prevailed upon by whim and instinct, and if he sometimes found trouble, it was al- ways the charming kind, such as when a dog gets his muzzle stuck in a jar of peanut butter. We all recall the time he decided to rig his harvest tray directly onto his back rather than filling it and bringing it down and then lugging an empty one back up, and at first it seemed to be working, despite the ungainly appearance, as he’d gently drop the tomatoes over his shoulder while he stood on the ladder, filling it steadily. But it got much heavier than he anticipated, and when he momentarily lost balance on the rung, the fully laden tray tipped him backward. It was a ridiculous mess and the floor forewoman was furious over the ruined fruit and Reg, his kinky head of hair pulp-sopped and dripping, was lucky his neck wasn’t broken, for how he landed on that bin. You could only chuckle and think, Reg, you especially are one fortunate young man for being born inside B-Mor!
But when he didn’t appear the first workday of the week, people began to talk. As always Fan worked in the tanks, rarely coming up for more than a few minutes straight. At the lunch hour someone went to Reg’s row house to see if he was ill, and at first no one answered but then his aunt opened the door just long enough to say that Reg wasn’t there anymore. When asked what “anymore” meant, she simply replied that they didn’t want to be bothered and shut the door on him like he was any open counties peddler allowed into B-Mor for the day. And when the shift was over, we asked Fan what she knew and all she could say was that she, too, had stopped by his family’s house and been brusquely turned away. The following day Fan asked the forewoman what she knew of Reg’s whereabouts and she referred her to the manager, who told her that it was now a directorate-level matter and that he had no idea where Reg was. After that, Fan went to the succeeding manager and administrator until there was no one else here in B-Mor to query; for more definitive word from above, she would have to question a Charter person, who (for us) are as rare a sight as honeybees.
A week passed by, then nearly two. There were scattered rumors and gossip and the broader rumblings of what must be called a genuine vexation, if not anger, that echoed about the lofty ceilings of the grow facility and on the stoops of the narrow-faced row houses. In the past few seasons one heard of similar “call-aways” at other facilities, including B-Mor. Sure, some of us had been summoned from work and sequestered for a few days and then had been returned to our posts. But Reg was gone. Had his clan made noises of dissent, there might have been a swell of emotions but they all went about their jobs or studies and did not air a single word of question or com- plaint, which at first surprised us but soon enough was like a cold quilt thrown over our corpus, snuffing every atom of ill heat. They were magnificently silent. For naturally you then think, If his kin are this placid, well . . .
And you could think Fan, too, was mute on the subject, for when- ever one of us would approach her to see if she knew anything, she’d simply affix her mask and disappear beneath the densely populated waters, or if out on the block, she’d raise the volume of whatever she was listening to and take an escaping tack on her scooter. She had a typical cohort of friends and acquaintances from work and the neighborhood but she receded from them after Reg disappeared, or they from her, even though there was no shunning going on, more a realization by all that Fan and Reg had come to belong together and that once unpaired, Fan should be perhaps left alone for a while. No one brought up his or her theories of what happened to him or why. You would expect the directorate of B-Mor to put out word official or otherwise of what he had done in order to stall speculation and focus our attention on some act or crime, but the remarkable thing about a silence so total is that it soon squares your attention not on the subject but on your very self. For you can’t help but interrogate your own behavior, actions, tendencies, even the stray skeins of your thoughts, and not wonder how in the course of the days you may have been close to transgressing some unspecified limit. It’s like when a toddler has a toy drum or piano and unconsciously taps away at it without a mote of annoyance from his seemingly copacetic father, right up until one random ordinary clang, which instantly dissipates the man’s patience and the keyboard ends up smashed.
Did Fan know more than what she let on? She must have known that Reg had done nothing wrong. He was an innocent, through and through, which is why she admired him. And isn’t this why we admired Fan, too, this tiny, good girl, who never crossed anyone or went against even a convention of B-Mor, much less a regulation, until the moment she did? And why, despite her present notoriety, we think of her still as one of us, one of our number, even as she left us for the open counties? Some would balk at this, they can hardly utter her name without a stony jaw, unable to forgive Fan for what she did before disappearing of her own accord as much as for the greater troubles that arose afterward. For how unnecessary all of it was. And from a certain perspective this was true. It was unnecessary. She had larger aims for sure, and it can be argued that she attained some measure of them, but why before leaving she had to poison some of the tanks is not fathomable. It makes no sense. The funny thing, the oddest thing, even for those of us who won’t eternally condemn her, is that she caused the deaths of only her own fish, the ones she so carefully raised.
Those poor sweet fish.
What People are Saying About This
“Watching a talented writer take a risk is one of the pleasures of devoted reading, and On Such a Full Sea provides all that and more. . . . Lee has always been preoccupied by the themes of hope and betrayal, by the tensions that arise in small lives in the midst of great social change. His marvelous new book, which imagines a future after the breakdown of our own society takes on those concerns with his customary mastery of quiet detail—and a touch of the fantastic. . . . With On Such a Full Sea, he has found a new way to explore his old preoccupation: the oft-told tale of the desperate, betraying, lonely human heart.”—Andrew Sean Greer, The New York Times Book Review
“I've never been a fan of grand hyperbolic declarations in book reviews, but faced with On Such a Full Sea, I have no choice but to ask: Who is a greater novelist than Chang-rae Lee today?”—Porochista Khakpour, The Los Angeles Times
"“If you loved Never Let Me Go, you should read Chang-rae Lee’s new novel.”—Slate
“In his latest and boldest novel, On Such a Full Sea, Lee’s characters are Chinese immigrant workers in the United States—specifically Chinese workers from a long-elapsed China toiling in a fast-declining America a century or so from now. For Lee’s heroine, Fan, the issue is not acclimatization but self-discovery. The adventures of this feisty yet wary protagonist, together with a bleak but arresting vision of the future, keep the reader rapt and concerned for the fate of both beleaguered character and battered brave new world.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Now with On Such a Full Sea, one of our most silken storytellers, Chang-rae Lee, has imagined how it all goes wrong in the darkest installment of this literary night terror yet. The menace of Lee’s book derives from how closely it resembles reality. The haves and have-nots in his world are neatly balkanized. Cities produce, suburbs consume, and only the rich can afford the health care that keeps them alive. . . . With this strange and magically grim book, Chang-rae Lee has allowed us to leave the familiar behind, all so we can see it more clearly.”—The Boston Globe
“[On Such a Full Sea is] not just a fully realized, time-jumping narrative of an audacious young girl in search of lost loved ones, but an exploration of the meaning and function of narrative, of illusion and delusion, of engineered personalities and faint promises of personhood, and of one powerful nation's disappearance and how that indelibly affects another.”—Chicago Tribune
"The most striking dystopian novels sound an alarm, focus our attention and even change the language. The Handmaid’s Tale crystallized our fears about reproductive control; Fahrenheit 451 still flames discussions of censorship; and 1984 is the lens through which we watch the Obama administration watching us. Chang-rae Lee’s unsettling new novel, On Such a Full Sea, arrives from that same frightening realm of total oversight and pinched individuality. . . . A brilliant, deeply unnerving portrait."—The Washington Post
"Should every talented novelist have a go at dystopia? Probably not, but we can thank the gods of chaos that the trendy genre fell into the hands of Chang-rae Lee. Over four novels, Lee has mastered the art of lyrical realist portraiture, breathing life into immigrants at sea in modern America. Taking a bold turn with his fifth, On Such a Full Sea, he's equally deft at envisioning a failed America. . . . As Fan's wild journey takes her across the socioeconomic strata, Lee's novel brilliantly satisfies the genre's prime directive, which is to reveal the awful present by means of the terrible future."—GQ
"[The] haunting On Such a Full Sea . . . recalls the work of Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro. Here Lee weaves multiple plots into an ambitious epic showcasing a fearless fish-tank-diver heroine as she treks across a devastated landscape. . . . With its appealing protagonist as narrative glue, On Such a Full Sea layers stories within stories, building to its final, resonant catharsis."—O, The Oprah Magazine
"Chang-rae Lee . . . is best known for realistic fiction about displaced characters of Asian descent. He sets his latest work, On Such a Full Sea, in a chaotic, dystopian America, but I'm happy to report that at its heart it's still very much another deeply soulful Chang-rae Lee novel. . . . The dystopia of On Such a Full Sea isn't showy. As in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, there's a welcome absence of sterile white laboratories and grand displays of oppression. instead Lee relies on specific, indelible images—a family of toothless acrobats who feed humans to their dogs, a group of anime-eyed girls held captive in a wealthy Charter woman's home—and his usual perceptive writing to get at the warped morality that can drive a world into decline."—Entertainment Weekly
“Chang-rae Lee’s On Such A Full Sea is so elegiac that it almost collapses into a morass of sorrow, yet it’s so well crafted it’s impossible not to see the story to its end. With his latest novel, Lee creates a world far into the future, where the boundaries between countries have frayed and a semi-dystopian state has arisen. Although Orwellian themes linger in the background, the book itself is really about one woman, and the symbol she becomes to the village she leaves behind.”—A.V. Club (A)
"[A] moving new novel."—Vanity Fair
"[A] riveting story . . . Lee’s brilliantly rendered dystopia resembles our America.”—More
"Lee's prose is sumptuous and at dimes discursive, and for that reason, this is a novel that demands the reader's full engagement. The rewards for that commitment are considerable; On Such a Full Sea is an elegiac and often unsettling glimpse of a future that could be closer than we'd like to think."—Bookpage
"It's an engrossing read, and Lee's skills as a world builder of the finest order are evident in every chapter."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lee, always entrancing and delving, takes a truly radical leap in this wrenching yet poetic, philosophical, even mystical speculative odyssey. . . . Lee brilliantly and wisely dramatizes class stratification and social disintegration, deprivation and sustenance both physical and psychic, reflecting, with rare acuity, on the evolution of legends and how, in the most hellish of circumstances, we rediscover the solace of art. Electrifying.”—Booklist (starred review)
“The title alone is an astonishing feat of encapsulated genius from the inimitable Lee. . . . Brilliant . . . A heart-thumping adventure.”—Library Journal (starred review)
"A harrowing and fully imagined vision of dystopian America from Lee. . . . The potency and strangeness of [his]characters never diminish the sense that Lee has written an allegory of our current predicaments, and the narration, written in the collective voice of B-Mor, gives the novel the tone of a timeless and cautionary fable. Welcome and surprising proof that there’s plenty of life in end-of-the-world storytelling."—Kirkus (starred review)
Reading Group Guide
On Such a Full Sea takes Chang-rae Lee's elegance of prose, his masterly storytelling, and his long-standing interests in identity, culture, work, and love, and lifts them to a new plane. Stepping from the realistic and historical territories of his previous work, Lee brings us into a world created from scratch. Against a vividly imagined future America, Lee tells a stunning, surprising, and riveting story that will change the way readers think about the world they live in.
In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class-descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China-find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement.
In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears. Fan's journey to find him takes her out of the safety of B-Mor, through the anarchic Open Counties, where crime is rampant with scant governmental oversight, and to a faraway charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend to those she left behind.
ABOUT CHANG-RAE LEE
Chang-rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction; A Gesture Life; Aloft; and The Surrendered, winner of the Dayton Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Writers for the 21st Century,” Chang-rae Lee is Professor professor in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University and the a Shinhan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Yonsei University.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Chang-rae Lee
Chang-rae Lee has always been a master at exposing, with immense generosity, the intricacies and contradictions of human psychology. His first three novels are confessionals, narratives of men often taken to be less complex, in some ways less feeling and in others less treacherous, than they actually are. His fourth novel, The Surrendered, is a multi-generational story with three protagonists whose fates are set in motion by the horrors of the Korean War. On Such a Full Sea in some ways his most intriguing yet begins in B-Mor, an impeccably restored and unsettlingly well-ordered future Baltimore, shortly after one of the residents, Fan, has fled the safety of the city for the dangers of the counties. Fan is presumably in search of her boyfriend, who has been recently (and unceremoniously) taken away. The story is told in the first- person plural, be a communal "We," the narrators being descendants of "New China" immigrants who clung to their lower-middle-class existence by working rote but exhausting factory jobs and never being the nail that sticks up.
I finished reading the novel during a train ride from Springfield, Mass. to Penn Station, past countless crumbling smokestacks and deserted factories that did nothing to lessen my sense that we are already half- living in this dystopian world he portrays. The following week, Chang- rae Lee and I met in Manhattan to talk about On Such a Full Sea. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Maud Newton
Maud Newton: I've been a fan of your novels for a long time, but this is a really different kind of thing.
Chang-rae Lee: Yes. Obviously, I knew it was a very different kind of thing, but I tried not to think about it. The more I thought about it, people asked me what I'm working on and I started talking about it, I'd get kind of scared. [Laughs]
MN: It's both futuristic and contemporary, quasi-apocalyptic yet hopeful about humanity at the same time. A couple of years ago you told James Mustich that you were working on a contemporary novel. Is this that book?
CRL: No. But this book came out of that book, and that book was about contemporary China. I had gone to China and done research, and it was going to be focused on the factory cities along the Pearl River Delta, outside of Shenzhen. It was going to be a social realist novel about that whole world, and have an American connection, and it was just going to be this big, sprawling book about China. But after doing all the research I really enjoyed it, going over there and seeing everything. I went into this cool factory and saw all the dormitories, this whole little world...
MN: What was your primary impression of it? Mostly depressing, or was it...?
CRL: It was not mostly depressing, and that's one of the things that I think I drew upon for writing about B-Mor. It was okay. It wasn't awful, not brutal Dickensian conditions. It wasn't sleek or like something you'd see in Norway. It had sort of everything a cafeteria, a tiny little infirmary, a dormitory where eight girls would live together in a room a little smaller than this, probably about 14'-by-14' or 12'-by-12'. Eight people, so two four-person bunks. But high ceilings, I think by design, so they could hang their clothes as they dried. They did everything in this little room.
It's not the kind of place that you would ever really want to stay, but I am sure a lot of these people from the provinces had very poor conditions growing up, so this might have seemed pretty decent to them. But I think you would still quickly feel as if this is a workplace, this is about efficiency. There's no ornamentation. There are no nods to anything aesthetic. It just works, and it's good enough. It's sufficient.
They didn't allow me to speak to workers, but I watched them. Doing some more research and seeing how they interacted, I felt as if it was a bargain they were making. "I'm going to up my standard of living to some middle-class comfort level or approaching that, I can send money back, but I am going to work like a dog, without any kind of fun. I'm going to be part of this, and put myself into it." That's I guess the sensibility of that, kind of putting yourself in a compliant situation.
MN: That comes across so powerfully in this book, the incentive to be compliant. You can really easily put yourself in that situation, and just think, "Well, I would do that, too, except I probably wouldn't be able to clean a fish tank or maintain produce or whatever."
CRL: You would learn. That's the thing, all these people, these young girls, they came from these dirt villages, and now they're making these little tiny motors. They were all trained to do their job. And they don't have a very difficult job. It's monotonous, but we all could do it. It's a matter of just putting yourself in the mind-set of "this is my life." That's what was kind of chilling about the whole thing. About all factory work in general, but in the context of China...
MN: Living there and having it be not just a deadening day job that you go to, but actually the thing that is your life...
CRL: It is the life.
MN: The structure of your life.
CRL: Yes, yes. And that captivated me, in a way. That's something that I didn't realize I was going to learn. What I got out of it was that feeling. So I was going to write this novel, but I came back and I started writing it, and I was doing good journalism, but I was wondering, "What is the fiction aspect of this?" Sure, I have a character. I can get into her head or his head. But what's really my angle here? Why do I really care? It's not enough just to show what's going on.
MN: In that prior interview, you spoke really powerfully about the smallness of the characters' worlds in your last book, these individuals caught up in the Korean War and other huge dramatic events. You said, "[T]here's something poignant in watching an ant move.... She picks up this little breadcrumb that's three times her size and just keeps walking. The more you watch that, the more you're moved. Look at this modest but incredible scene of life." And you mentioned being awestruck not just at political forces in the world "but also the acts of a single human being."
One thing I find so fascinating and puzzling in a good way about this book is how you simultaneously managed to create this sense of the individual and this sense of universality. So it's narrated in the first- person plural...
CRL: The "we." That came about quite early.
MN: The title is taken from Julius Caesar, and the passage in Julius Caesar that it comes from is also in the first- person plural. "On such a full sea are we now afloat..."
CRL: I've been reading Shakespeare a lot lately, because I was bored on planes. I don't like to watch movies on planes, so I thought, "You know what? I should just freshen myself up on some Shakespeare." And I was reading Julius Caesar, I loved it, and I came across that quote, which is he's speaking metaphorically it's about opportunity and taking risks. Even though he's speaking metaphorically, just the image of it, this tide, this wave that this little girl would be on. Does the wave come from herself, or does it come from outside? She seems so persistent and irrepressible in a certain way, and I love that idea of the sea rising, and that she was a diver, and I thought, "That's perfect."
MN: It really is. And it's metaphorically apt, in the world she leaves behind. Another thing that fascinated me was the stuff about blood. I've been working on a long piece about ancestry, and thinking a lot about growing up around my father's obsession with the "purity of blood." And this comes up among the new China settlers in B-Mor, and the "native population" that was there. I love the part where the We finds out that a beloved aunt is mixed-race.
And it's clear that, much as in our world now, there was overt racism at one point in B-Mor, and the people who were living in Baltimore were marginalized and quarantined and slowly forced out, and now there's this more insidious sort of awareness, and nobody really knows what it means. Then you bring in this character, Reg, who is C-free free of a disease that sounds a lot like cancer, that plagues everyone else and so there's all this curiosity about him and his genetics among the Charters, because he's mixed-race, and obviously so.
CRL: Well, I knew when I was setting the book in the former Baltimore that there would have to be some racial consciousness by somebody at some point, but it aligned very nicely with how I thought about these people who had come over, because so much of their identity is a group identity. That's why the "we" is the we. But that communal identity only works if we can really identify the We. [Laughs]
MN: That's what's so fascinating also about the We here! I was thinking of, of course, Brave New World and 1984, but mostly I kept thinking of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and also the Joshua Ferris book Then We Came to the End. In both of those books, there is this deep psychological insight into the modern world and where we might be headed. And also, especially in the Ferris book, there is philosophical awareness of the way people behave in groups.
MN: It's very generous, but also incisive. I felt that here, too, and even more so because of these extreme conditions that you make feel so accessible and familiar. And then you overtly brought in the problem of "Well, what do we really know about Fan?" As you're reading, you're like, "Oh, it's fascinating that this happened," and then you're like, "Well, maybe it happened, or maybe the We is just imagining it."
CRL: Well, so much of the We's interests it has a lot of interests, but one of the interests is, "Who are we?" And the We is not authoritative enough to come down and say, "This is it." So I wanted a We that, particularly in this question of blood and kind...would have an anxiety about it.
MN: It also implicates the reader, even if you can't relate to the specific thing that the We is talking about.
CRL: Yes. That's the nice thing about the We, first-person plural. It's almost second-person address. It draws you in, and so you are suddenly looking... You are the one questioning, you are the one who is wondering. What is it about Reg, and how does he reflect me? Is it because he is mixed that he is so pure of C? What does that say about us? But these are all things that I didn't really know when I started out.
MN: Did it take some time to figure it out?
CRL: It did. The We classically would be a chorus, and a chorus that had the benefit of a certain kind of omniscience and authority and a moral authority. I thought, yes, there were going to be aspects of that to this We. But real reason why I wanted to do the We was that I wanted the story to be both an adventure tale, following Fen...
MN: Which it is. It has that fun, propulsive adventure-story quality.
CRL: I wanted her to go out and discover the world, but also that each discovery would put into question some aspect of their origin point. I wanted the We to then be deformed in some way, as a moral, authoritative conscience. It's a conscience, but it's a conscience that doesn't know what the rules of conscience are as we go through.
MN: That anxiety is fascinating. The We starts out very censorious of Fan, while being mildly sympathetic in some ways, and then increasingly becomes more and more sympathetic and identifies with her more and more, and then transforms her almost into a hero. Which people and cultures tend to do over time.
CRL: Partly, I think, it's because once you start telling a story - - because that's what the We is also doing, it's also telling a story once you begin narration, the narration, in certain narrations, wants to let someone rise. It has to. If it doesn't, then what do you have? Why are you telling this story?
MN: And the We more than anything else almost creates that need.
MN: The world that you describe is so familiar in various ways. It feels, at least for people who tend to view things in an apocalyptic way sometimes (and I do), that we're right on the edge of a world like that, a world where there are the Charters, the wealthy, privileged people, and the counties, who are the marginalized people who live in lawlessness with no recourse and no medical care...
CRL: No infrastructure.
MN: Right. Then there's the in-between stage. Obviously, the B-Mor facility is much more regimented than the life of a typical office worker today, or even a factory worker in America. But it's still recognizable enough that it really doesn't feel like that much of a stretch.
CRL: Well, it's that society's version of the middle class. The middle class, but the middle class is so regimented, and that's what's scary about it.
MN: Yes, and if you won't stay within the parameters that you're allowed to exist in, you'll be released into the counties.
CRL: That's my anxiety about now. We all know and we all have the sense of how fragile actually our economic position is as individuals and... You read stories all the time about people who have a perfectly good, upper-middle-class life, and then suddenly, BOOM. Right?
CRL: That and the income disparity, and that entails education disparity, healthcare disparity, everything.
MN: And the way that you write about that, especially the education and the healthcare and the insidious discrimination, it really could be about this moment almost.
CRL: It really could be... So I never felt like I was writing about the fture. These are all my very present anxieties. My other books have been about a person's consciousness about who they are, how they fit into this world or this society. This book is the first book I think I really felt like I was writing as a citizen of this world, and letting in all my anxieties about the world, about the divisions in class and the gulfs in wealth, all those anxieties, and my anxieties about community, too, about the joys and also the really scary parts of having such a tight community.
MN: It's really thoughtful and generous in that way. I was constantly folding down the corners of pages in my galley so that I could go back later and ponder the We's observations. I love the section about the rash of spontaneous group defiance in parks where word seemed to spread but no one could really pinpoint how, "as if we each had a solitary desire that should not be named but whose expression, once sparked, was so instantly enacted that it felt as pure and instinctive as fleeing from a house fire."
There are so many beautiful, poetic observations about groups, their desires and tendencies. Without them, this would just be another quite possibly brilliant, but another ironic dystopian book. I mean, there's irony here, for sure, but that's not the predominant feeling I get from it.
CRL: I'm glad you feel that way. Again, I didn't set out to write dystopic fiction. That's not the model in my head. I just had to set it in a certain place so I could address certain anxieties of mine which are always about the dramas of a particular people. I'm glad you brought up that ant quote. That's sort of how I guess I'm feeling about all of us more and more. Maybe I'm getting older, and I feel like I can cast myself against this huge screen, I'm seeing things more contextually than personally, more and more.
Someone asked me, "Well, you could have had it just in a first-person singular." But I didn't want one person's voice, tonality, being. It's not about personality in that way.
MN: Not like Native Speaker.
CRL: Right. It's not about that. It's not about one person's view. I mean, Fan is an individual, but she's not the same. We don't know her the way that we know other heroes. And I purposely shied away from doing all the normal things that I would do for the protagonist.
MN: What are those things that you would normally do?
CRL: Well, we would get deep inside her head about this issue and that issue, so we'd get all the little nitty-gritty of moves of her consciousness. We'd get much more of her voice. She'd be much more of an actor. But she's like a mirror to everybody she comes into contact with. She inspires them to expose themselves. I always think of her as like Nature. She's just there. Then people react in certain acts. Like, "Look at that tree; I want to cut it down" or "Look at that tree; I want to dress it up." But it's all about what she seems to evoke in everybody she meets.
MN: She's a very small woman who seems much younger than she is, and, as a small woman who, when I was younger, always seemed younger to people than I was, I could relate to some of that. Obviously, I wasn't like Nature. But I've become aware that people feel able to project things onto people who are small and seem innocuous.
CRL: Yes. Seem innocuous. But somehow, Fen inspires them. It's not just projection, but it's a certain kind of inspiration.
MN: Yes, I love that! She's a hero.
CRL: Even if it's dark inspiration sometimes. I was really fascinated by her. Someone asked me, "Is that the difference between a Western hero and an Eastern hero?"
MN: What did you say?
CRL: Maybe. I don't know. But the Western heroes we know - - in literature, it's someone who is picaresque, larger than life, very vocal. And she's totally the opposite of that. The heroes of my previous books are very Western, in a certain way. But maybe this one isn't. And the We, who does have some personality and a modulation to their consciousness and person it's more tentative.
MN: On the subway here, I was imagining what a movie of this would look like. I think it would be a wonderful cinematic story.
CRL: I think so!
MN: I do keep thinking of her almost as a superhero, which is not how I felt when I was reading the book at all. But the more I've thought about it, the more she's started to seem like that kind of character.
CRL: Yeah. Page by page, she's just sort of there. She's in place. Maybe that's her gift, to be in situ.
MN: I've read that your father was a psychiatrist, and I'm wondering how you feel that this, if at all, has informed your own way of looking at people and your own writing.
CRL: I think it influenced me a lot, because of the sort of person he was, and maybe I'm a little bit like him. He was kind of bookish, curious about people. It wasn't just that he wanted to be a psychiatrist. He actually wanted to be a psychoanalyst.
MN: I did read that, I think in Charles McGrath's profile.
CRL: His language skills just wouldn't allow it. It was impossible for who he was, a twenty-seven-year-old immigrant from Korea who had never spoken English on a daily basis. But when I was growing up I was just writing about this for the Times I read a lot of his psychology texts. I really enjoyed them. They were just great stories to me about all these strange characters, people with problems. Then later, when I was in college, I actually worked at a clinic, a psychiatric clinic, as a physician's assistant, a nursing assistant.
MN: Did you like that?
CRL: I did. I would just sit with people. Most of the people weren't very interesting in the sense that they just were totally out of it. But I've always been very curious about people, and I've always really liked people the phenomenon of people. Even a person who is a total asshole, I still sort of appreciate them in a way that I think other people might not, just because they have an emotional reaction that precludes any kind of further study.
So I think the life of the mind and the character of the mind has always been something that's been in my family and in my life.
MN: I wanted to ask you about that. For me it ties back into those questions of blood and inheritance and environment. Does that sort of thing get passed down genetically? Or is it a learned behavior? Or is it some combination?
CRL: I think it's definitely a combination with me and Dad. I guess we're both sort of patient, in a way, with people. I always felt he was very patient with people.
MN: That's a constant through your books. There is this patience with people. Even the narrators of your first-person novels are, maybe at times to a fault, patient with people.
CRL: Yeah, they are.
MN: Do you feel like talking about what you're working on now?
CRL: I think I'm going to pick up the China business, but in a slightly different way. It's going to be more focused on this one character, a fellow who is a more entrepreneurial type, kind of a Horatio Alger type. This guy is a sort of world-beater.
MN: Which brings us back to the parallels between our world and the different economic classes in On Such a Full Sea, the counties and the facilities and the Charters. CRL: We all know it's happening, and yet there's not really a lot of talk about it. I mean, there's the Occupy people. But there's not a groundswell of worry. It's beyond me why people aren't more worried about it. This minimum-wage thing is partly a worry about it. Now we're really thinking, "Wait a minute, these people, they get minimum wage and then they need food assistance?" These are working people.
MN: The stuff where you see Wal-Mart having food drives for its employees.
CRL: I know! It's no longer some Republican story about people who don't want to work. These are people working two jobs. So what are we offering them in our society? Zero. All that stuff makes me crazy.
December 4, 2013
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book starts a little slowly, mostly because the reader is being introduced to a new America. After that the book really picks up. Th style of writing is wonderful, if a bit hard to follow sometimes. I was not a fan of the authors earlier works so I went into this book with no expectations. Just a very good read.
The story lingers, giving one's mind a lot to think about. A not too distant future and A main character revealed only in how she is imagined by those who knew her once and have heard of her adventures makes for strangely compelling reading. I finished much too quickly.
On Such a Full Sea is mostly commentary by a narrator with dialogue taking up less than half the book. It is primarily a philosophical/sociological meditation. The plot is okay but far from the popular SiFi adventure story. If this type of book interests you--good; if you like space operas or other action dories, you may not like it.
A strange yet interesting story. ~*~LEB~*~
A melancholy tale about the future. Less post-apocalyptic dystopian than more of the same, dystopia we’ve already got.
Very slow from start to finish.
I'm one of those people who finds it difficult to slow down when I take a vacation. A similar situation occurs each evening when I get home from work and pick up Lee 's novel. Once I have slowed enough, the prose and storyline act upon me and I find much of the violence and horror discussed lost of its edge. It's less a novel than a prayer.
And as confusing. Two stars for a sentence that caught my eye. We are all from somewhere else but it is gone and no longer there.
Is it good or not? Should I bother to read? Please respond...