Battling the Currents

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While I was eavesdropping on two girls talking in the student center at Northwestern, one posited rather intelligently that dystopias were depressing but showed the persistence of humanity. That’s what makes dystopian fiction so compelling: it shows us a future gone very wrong, but it also shows us how the human spirit can go very, very right. The thing about On Such A Full Sea, the new novel from Chang-Rae Lee that has been getting attention from the New York Times and The New Yorker on down, is it’s not depressing.

Or at least, it doesn’t make you feel depressed. Instead, you feel the calm, exposing perspective of the contemplative voice; the well-drawn details of disparate characters’ lives in their various stations of life; and most of all, the excitement and investment of the main character’s journey.

On Such A Full Sea‘s tale centers on a teenage inhabitant of B-Mor, a community of New China descendants in future America whose life centers around fish and produce production for the upper-class residents of rich Charter Cities. The “B-Mors” are second-class citizens but their needs are taken care of by the directorate that organizes the system, and organize it does: every aspect of the B-Mors’ lives is minutely micromanaged, as much as the environment of the plants and vegetables they grow, and – most tellingly – the tanks of farmed fish they are famous for. Nevertheless, B-Mors themselves are grateful for their consistency, their routine, and their security, because outside the gates lies a lawless, ruined world, rife with danger and desolation.

16-year-old Fan, a skilled diver whose work helps tend the B-Mor fish, begins her journey when her love mysteriously disappears. Without pomp or circumstance, she sets out into the world on an unassuming quest to find him. Fan herself is quiet, remarkably small, no paragon of strength or smarts or beauty (though not notably lacking them, in her unique particular way). Her heroism lies in her silent determination, her clarity of focus, her admirable goodness towards others, and most of all, her freedom.

Because she travels without bluster, without imposing presence, and often without comment, the people she runs into underestimate her focus, her capabilities, and think they can assimilate her into their own plans. Instead, she moves like a kind, quiet Odysseus – pushing forward on an undeterrable mission when the time is right, little changed, but having changed the places where she visits.

On Such A Full Sea is also, however, the story of B-Mor, a community of people analogous with their prized fish tanks: planned, processed, complacent, but aware of what their safety has cost them, and – perhaps – able to be agitated, spurred to thoughts of freedom if not action. In fact, the narrator voice is one of the most interesting things about OSAFS: a first-person plural town perspective redolent of Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides. The village mythologizes Fan at first with a mixture of envy and disapproval – an ironic interplay that illustrates the internal struggle of a society condemning someone reckless and different while it admires and longs for that courage, that freedom.

More than anything, OSAFS is a classic Hero’s Journey, and it’s the Hero’s Journey of a small, quiet, determined hero whose mythologization by her village is a mythologization of themselves the way they wish they were. And in the way this future people are reflected, we right now, and our choices about our society are reflected as our Hero’s Journey.

It carries in its vision the feeling that in reaching our own modern world’s comfort and safety – our finally somewhat permanent Ithaca away from the winds and whims of gods we’ve been working to protect ourselves from – we have abandoned, forgotten about, something important that made us who we used to be: the odyssey. After all, it’s human to crave a little wildness, a little disorganization, a little bad. Perhaps, OSAFS seems to say, we’ve sailed our way into waters too calm – perhaps into a restrictive water tank of our own construction.

Stylistically, Lee hits you near the beginning with a deftfully eloquent writing display that lets you know you’re in the hands of talent: the kind of talent that’ll have you stopping to appreciate finely-said sentences and striking insights at least every other page. His style is remarkably skilled without trying too hard or becoming distracting – that bugbear of readers that too often crops up in “crafted” literary show-offs. Instead, Lee is intelligent and artful for his storytelling purpose.

In the middle, the story becomes more of a post-apocalyptic romp, its wastelands populated by diverse characters from stalwartly perfectionist hoteliers in a bastion among the ruins to big backwater family troupes that may or may not be more insidious than they seem.  Some action-focused plot points don’t quite seem to mesh with the contemplative beauty of the rest, though no section is poorly done (every character and circumstance, however sensationalistic, is fleshed out and given its narrative due), and you certainly get your money’s worth out of the journey.

If there’s a weakness, it’s in that OSAFS fails to startle with its story. While certainly far from unoriginal, the plot points are not either extremely New. The plucky lower class more in touch with Nature in the unregulated wilds, the upper crust walled away in futuristic cities, the journey out that lands a sheltered heroine in contact with a wider world – it all feels recognizably familiar. It carries us with its genuineness and skill and insights down these rivers of thought, but doesn’t often plunge into sudden or uncharted waters.

Nevertheless, the waters it does plumb, it plumbs deeply, and with a combination of reflection and disturbance that I can’t help but repeat myself in calling artfulOSAFS deals with themes of class, personal liberty, social status, colonial multi-culturalism, family, community, and love. Perhaps more than anything it speaks of goals and priorities and what we are willing to surrender for them, whether they are freedom, safety, or truth to oneself, both as individuals and as a people. Without preachiness or unlikely straw-man exaggeration (ahem, Eggers), OSAFS makes us think about where we are now and who we want to be, by showing us one possibility of who we could become.

OSAFS also brings us one of the greatest heroes of contemporary literature I’ve ever seen, and the fact that she is female is not so much of secondary importance (I would say it is integral to her being), as it is simply not any kind of asterisk or impediment or necessary modifier to her being that: a hero. Fan is not a person you’ll fail to root and cheer for, or fail to learn from, or fail to remember when it’s all done. In true fashion of the Hero Quest for today’s world, she is not a hero just for her place, or her community, but a hero for us all.

Furthermore, this novel is exciting and fun to read. Thoughtful cultural commentary and poetic style can often go snoozefest. Instead OSAFS turned out to be the book I went to for escape and enjoyment, the one I couldn’t wait to get back to at the end of a day – and darn if the sight of a particular favorite character returning at the end didn’t nearly make my eyes a little blurry (which is a non-spoiler; I wouldn’t ruin the Big Question like that – you’ll have to read and find out).

On Such A Full Sea delivers the prime goods. You won’t regret taking it in.

Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.

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