Chang-rae Lee's new novel On Such a Full Sea takes its title from a line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, in which the traitor, Brutus, refuses to believe that fate trumps free will: "On such a full sea are we now afloat / And we must take the current when it serves / Or lose our ventures." Lee's protagonist, named Fan, draws on a similar sense of purpose in the face of an outcome she seems all but destined to meet.
On Such a Full Sea is Lee's fifth novel in twenty years, and his first to depart from the experience of isolation and alienation among immigrants. Here, the immigrants are portrayed as the rightful residents, and saviors, of B-Mor, a strange settlement representing all that remains of what used to be Baltimore. In this odd book set in an off-kilter projection of America, Lee tells a story that is neither a quest nor science fiction nor dystopian romance.
The narrative voice, cast in the first person plural, is complacent in its collectivity. There is no clear villain responsible for the stratification of the nation and our heroine is almost deliberately uninspired. Yet the disquieting genius of the book lies in the seeming normalcy of the world it portrays. It all feels eerily plausible. Dialing back to the present day, who wouldn't want to forego his or her fierce individualism and settle into the uncomplicated arms of that narrative "we?" Aren't many of our modern day heroes a little lackluster already?
It is the "we" of B-Mor who tell "the tale of Fan," the story of a sixteen-year-old tank diver whose lifelong job has been to look after thousands of perfectly manufactured fish. The world as we know it now is generations away from the people of B-Mor, whose ancestors from "New China" settled and rebuilt the city after its staggering social and economic collapse. The narrator's collective consciousness envelops the reader as the plot glides through the legend of Fan's journey across North America, a not quite post-apocalyptic wasteland, to find her lover, Reg, who is also the father of her unborn child.
In the blighted present of Lee's novel, highly regulated labor facilities, such as the fish and vegetable factories of B-Mor, sustain the lavish lifestyles of the "Charter" villages—freakish hamlets reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. All that exists between the Charters and the labor facilities are the anarchic "open counties," the very idea of which inspires in residents "a swampy tingle in the underarms, a gaining chill in the gut."
We follow Fan as she leaves through the gates of B-Mor, after Reg is taken away when the authorities discover that he is mysteriously free of the disease, known as "C," that plagues the rest of the population. Alone and away from home for the first time in her life, Fan confronts the reality of the open counties, and finds herself in a outlying settlement called "The Smokes." Beaten and humiliated by Loreen, the matriarch of this area, Fan befriends the introverted leader Quig, who was excommunicated from his native Charter, an experience described as being catapulted "beyond the Earth's pull, one course into the spectral chasm as likely as any other, all coordinates open but potentially full of peril, each completely unknown."
From there, we trace Fan, Quig, and Loreen's trek across the desolate Northeast, where they happen upon a family of acrobatic vegetarians, who drug and nearly gut Quig and Loreen in the hope of adopting Fan into their traveling circus. By far the most chilling stop on her path is Fan's unintended stay in the immaculately manicured Charter village of Seneca. After being traded as an indentured servant to Mister Leo and the mentally unhinged Miss Cathy, Fan is soon being "kept" by Miss Cathy, along with seven other girls, named One through Seven.
Throughout On Such a Full Sea, Lee's prose is filled with anxiety and existential malaise. His sentences move erratically from unearthly meditation and wonderment to accounts of the increasingly brutal incidents unleashed upon the protagonist. And although she is bold enough to overcome savagery, Fan is not a heroine in the traditional sense. Yes, she is just; yes, she is loyal; yes, she is unyielding in her determination. But the reader may still find her exasperating as a character, albeit in familiar ways. We are forever waiting for her to take decisive action, to no avail. When two of the girls poison themselves to give Fan cover to escape from Miss Cathy, she simply stands aside and says, "I can't leave yet."
But in fact, Fan's inaction is something of a decoy, allowing the inner qualities of the people and places she encounters to emerge in both startlingly compassionate and deeply unsettling ways. We are reminded: "Often she remained silent, but when she did speak, it seemed only forthright and sincere, which is why people responded to her in the way they did." It may be the result of her unobtrusive disposition that she becomes the only person with whom Quig feels comfortable sharing the gruesome story of his family's great fall from grace. Or, alternately, the reason her own brother perceives her as someone he has no problem betraying.
Fan's laconic nature is frustrating at times. But the crux of the novel is the ease with which we relate to her. In a way, she is nothing special. Lee seems immune to the notion that a dystopian hero must look and act like the bow-slinging Katniss Everdeens of the world (a la Hunger Games). Thus, the novel's weight is felt not so much in the portrayal of the chilling future that awaits our physical world, but rather in its rendering of the consciousness and humanity of the people who will still be living there. Or more poignantly, as Lee writes, "Our tainted world looms within us, every one."
Aviel Kanter is a writer based in Brooklyn.