ecently, I attended a monologue performance of Composition as Explanation, Gertrude Stein’s 1925 heady dive into the nature of art. She writes:
Stein’s repetition is humorous. Through it, she mocks the supposed superiority of one generation over another—the idea that any story could ever be new. But it is also a reminder of the difficulties that each historical period faces; of how deeply affecting a war, a belief system, or a political moment can be for a culture.
I mention Stein’s piece here because, listening to it, I was reminded again and again of Chang-rae Lee’s newest novel—a kind of dream-like take on our present and future.
In On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee’s protagonist, Fan, takes an expedition out of a future, oppressive Baltimore—now called “B-Mor”—which has a set-up that will be familiar to readers of dystopian fiction. The residents of B-Mor are the long-off descendants of the people of “New China,” who came to America after turning their home country into an environmental wasteland. Their world is defined by a strict power structure: Like so many employees, the residents of B-Mor have regular tasks and days off, but their lives are circumscribed by their inability to move up and leave. Fan, for instance, is recruited to tend to the fish that serve as the primary foodstuff for everyone from the elite Charters to the less-privileged residents of B-Mor.
B-Mor’s citizens convince themselves of their independence, but in fact they are deeply controlled. To leave B-Mor’s walls is to risk death; to refuse the party line is to risk expulsion by disappearance.
Lee uses B-Mor’s social structures to highlight the cutthroat attitudes that inequalities can breed. B-Mor’s elite—the Charters—live as well-coiffed dictatorial MBA-types looking down on even their own progeny, worrying they won’t live up to their predecessors: “I’ve looked back at the historical numbers and performance is declining at every grade level,” one says. “We’re losing what makes a Charter a Charter, which is the tireless drive for excellence. The compulsion to build and to own.”
In this way, B-Mor offers an extreme version of our contemporary lives: Individuals are geared toward a particular role in society, with little variation. Subterranean malls and indoor pools have been built to help people avoid the polluted air. The walls of B-Mor keep them confined in the city and its schooling system serves only to indoctrinate and protect. B-Mor’s citizens convince themselves of their independence, but in fact they are deeply controlled. To leave B-Mor’s walls is to risk death; to refuse the party line is to risk expulsion by disappearance. A deadly “C-illness” has emerged, threatening to cause widespread deaths. Even the activities of a free day or a love affair are fodder for problems, as the relationship between Fan and her boyfriend, Reg, demonstrates. When Reg suddenly disappears, Fan takes extreme action by defiantly killing the fish she tends to, and leaving her home.
The book follows Fan as she runs the gauntlet in this future world to find Reg. To underscore the myth-like nature of this tragedy, the story isn’t narrated from Fan’s perspective, but from the chorus of people in B-Mor she has left behind. Told from the perspective of the characters she has left behind immediately begs the question: Is their story true? Is Fan even alive? This strange, speculative bunch talks like a pensive gaggle of friends milling about a bar:
Through the eyes of this pseudo-chorus, Fan symbolizes hope and recklessness at once. And Fan’s obvious distrust of the people of B-Mor and those she later encounters offers a troubling—uncertain—voice. When the narrative voice asks, “Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” the question is hyperbolic. These residents are not really the best of anything—they are subsumed by the tides that control them. They are an unnerving take on who we think we are as we run about our days.
Fan’s travels take us deep into a strange plot that reflects on our current capacity to dream: If we believe her story, believe in her nobility we are, of course, colluding for a happy ending.
Like the protagonist in Lee’s first book, a man skilled at hyper-psychologized manipulation to glean information from his human subjects, Fan’s story offers ample social commentary. Lee blatantly quips at the inanity of modern health care, for example: “[T]he maximum stay period in the health clinics is effectively one work cycle (six days), no matter the condition or needs of the patient, as the family is now responsible for the fees past that time.”
Part of Lee’s gift as a writer is the way he sits, slowly, with passages and ideas. As the narrative progresses the voice of B-Mor changes and an uncertain intonation takes over:
Indeed, more than anything else, Fan may represent a people’s need for a story, a myth, to believe in. Such ideals are readily reflected in a picture Lee describes of an old Baltimore row house found in a museum dedicated to the history of B-Mor. The image shows that what seems like beautiful top-level windows “are not windows at all but plywood sheets painted as such … that the reddish light glowing behind it is only possible to see because this house has no roof, because it is open to the sky.” This is the opportunity of an earlier world—one open to the abstract possibilities of the real world.
Fan’s travels take us deep into a strange plot that reflects on our current capacity to dream: If we believe her story, believe in her nobility we are, of course, colluding for a happy ending—seeing the possibility of a better future for her and the residents of B-Mor, who themselves draw inspiration from Fan. The longer she is away, the more B-Mor’s citizens act out: Painting murals of Fan and Reg, demonstrating, performing “improvisational work slowdowns”—all to showcase their desire for something different.
But striving for an undefined betterment is also unnerving for the residents of B-Mor:
As the residents of B-Mor dream of more—want more—they also change. Namely, they realize that to fulfill their desire for betterment they must know what better is, know where they wish to reside between Fan’s open road and a lux, elite life: “For what are we aiming for, in the end? To be more like Charters?”
Lee’s story circles the factual ailments of its world in the pursuit of a troubling question—one about how willing we are, or will be, to see stories outside our own, those that cause displeasure.
Once on the run Fan comes to places that seem to shift, labyrinth-like, but which are defined by their confinement. Toward the story’s end, she meets a group of seven women made nearly translucent from a lack of sunlight. They are named One through Seven. These sirens are malnourished into submission by the obsessive and mad Miss Cathy. Their activity consists of drawing a mural across their wall, one of which, drawn by Six, shows “an underwater garden, wildly overgrown, of entwined sea plants and fabulous creatures such as tusked fish and man-headed eels and fat man-o’-wars whose insides contained miniature worlds of the same.”
The women feed off Fan’s warm pallor in their desperation for stories, ideas, and meaning outside of their own. Even Miss Cathy echoes this longing, wondering what an undefined walk might feel like, recounting those she took as a girl: “You’re so fresh and alive, and I have nothing more of those things. … I used to walk to the edge of the village and wait for the gatehouse guard to take a bite of his lunch and then slip out between the bars … I would just run, at first as fast as I could … I’d keep going the whole day.”
Lee’s story circles the factual ailments of its world in the pursuit of a troubling question—one about how willing we are, or will be, to see stories outside our own, those that cause displeasure. While Fan is the only one who transcends the regimented society, she is also, in a sense, lifeless. She is voiceless and we can hardly know if her narrators are trustworthy. In this way, our willing belief in Fan’s story also leaves us to wonder how trustworthy our own beliefs and thoughts can be.