Friday, August 5, 2016

On Such a Full Sea

This near-future dystopia by Chang-Rae Lee is a fantastic read. It follows the adventures of a teenage girl, Fan, who leaves her home town of B-Mor in search of her one and only true love, Reg, gone missing under suspicious circumstances. The book envisions an essentially stateless America, which has been carved up into three kinds of communities: wealthy gated Charter villages; collective urban production settlements like B-Mor; and the lawless open counties everywhere else inbetween. Similarities to the world we now inhabit are hardly subtle—indeed, when the locus of action shifted to the Charter village, I had to cringe at the many resemblances to my own Palo Alto.

Lots of bad stuff happens to our Fan along her journey—both physical violence and the moral violence of betrayal—but comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro by some reviewers are, in my view, inapt. On Such a Full Sea is far from McCarthy's misanthropic machismo or Ishiguro's quietly devastating sadness in Never Let Me Go. In its way, this is an exuberant book. Fan is irrepressible in her quest, and beauty and acts of kindness and sacrifice abound, amidst the moral decay and occasional brutality.

Plot-wise, there's not all that much new here, if you read this kind of book, although a couple of the set pieces are unexpectedly original and compelling, including a driving lesson, and the creation of an elaborate drawing on a bedroom wall. The glory of this novel is in the language. Lee has a voice all his own. In fact, the novel's voice is that of an unnamed resident of B-Mor, recounting Fan's story as legend. In typical modernist fashion, this narrator is self-conscious and not entirely reliable, by her/his own admission in places. How could she be, not being direct witness to any of the main action in Fan's story? Perhaps more reliable, but still subjective, is the parallel story arc of the ups and downs of B-Mor itself, as the missing Reg becomes something of a cause célèbre during hard times. The narrator is constantly engaged in conversation with the reader, with himself, with the absent Fan, with fellow B-Morians, and often turns didactic, asking questions—sometimes rhetorical, sometimes ironic or humorous.

I thought the book's final act dragged just a little, as Lee's interest in social criticism got the better of him in spots. But the writing is seldom less than brilliant. And the plot twist on the last page is utterly satisfying and right. Don't peek.

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