The imagined near future of Chang-Rae Lee's new novel is entirely credible. So much so that one is, for much of the book, lulled into reading the story as merely a warning of the perils of unbridled consumerism and neglect of our environment. And indeed, yes, there is that, but there is so much more besides. The adventures of Lee's heroine Fan begin as legend, then evolve into fable, taking at times the form of a subdued picaresque as she launches from precarious encounter to lucky escape from the hands of various gradations of evil doers, compromisers and, in the case of a troupe of acrobat vegetarians, the downright insane.
On Such a Full Sea is narrated in the collective voice of the residents of a community called B-Mor. The nation has collapsed. Where there was once a country of federated states, there are now globally linked corporate "Charter" villages for the privileged; and "settlements" that house the laborers who provide goods and services.
The reader is never told what has happened between our present day reality and this future, but it is easy to imagine. There are hints at an environment abused beyond the sustaining of human life, a capitalist system that has abandoned all sense of communal responsibility and, for those without corporate protection, existence in the varying levels of anarchy that make up the "open counties."
This is not unknown territory. Readers will be reminded of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy and perhaps of Cormac McCarthy's The Road as they read of an America inhabited by people often beyond the point of crisis. It is a moral landscape replete with circumstances that magnify the worst of humanity, and the very best. In Lee's hands, the genre acquires a lightness of touch and a deft narration that is original and multi-layered.
Fan, the book's main character, is a talented diver — one of the community of workers who tend to the fish that are their main source of revenue. She is an ordinary young woman; she fits in well within her clan grouping and the wider community and her budding romance with the somewhat ungainly but universally well-regarded Reg is remembered with fondness by the narrators. All seems to be well in this safe, well-ordered community until Reg disappears and every query is met with official silence and obstruction. Fan leaves the safety of B-Mor to find him. Her subsequent quest has a profound impact on the community, at least for while.
This is Lee's fourth book and he demonstrates once again that he is a writer of great imagination and stylistic elegance. The "we" of the neighbourhood story-teller has an inflected cadence that speaks of an immigrant community that has remained close-knit, even decades after the immigration of the "originals" to this sheltered, enclave. But that is not to say fractures in the society are ignored — there are anecdotal asides of xenophobia, intolerance and domestic tensions all the more affecting for their prosaic rendering.
Once Fan has left and there comes a point at which the economic stability of the community is threatened, there are whisperings of dissent and a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo — that one of their own could abandon security and family leads to wider questions about the very existence they have all accepted. In the end, though, these are creatures pacified. Their focus quickly swivels back to holding on to the privilege that their usefulness as workers affords them. Even if there is the sense that Fan's quest for freedom and love ennobled the entire community, there is little chance they will do anything about it.
As she travels through the open lands, Fan encounters a Charter village cast out who has become a medicine man; a rich woman who keeps a harem of pet Asian girls and a successful but emotionally adrift young doctor. At each point, she is confronts stark moral choices with a mixture of guilessness and bravery — an innocent alone in an unforgiving world.
Fan's story is told to us from some point after her adventure has occurred. And it is in this telling that I sometimes experienced difficulty. We don't know how the narrators came to know all that is told here. It is a story recounted at several removes and it's clear that things have been simplified and conflated. The reader never knows how Fan herself feels about things, her motivations are always guessed at we never hear her true voice. Even the narrators confess:
We reshape the story even when we believe we are simply repeating it. Our telling becomes an irrepressible vine whose hold becomes stronger than the originating stock and sometimes even topples it, replacing it altogether
Admittedly, Lee's prose succeeds in rendering the tale consistently immediate and engaging. It could so easily not have worked and yet, even though I was occasionally frustrated by a plotline that seems excessively tidy at times (some of the twists and turns felt entirely too convenient) Lee ensures that the story holds together.
There is something disturbingly coy about the language throughout this book. We eventuallylearn that Reg may have been abducted because of his value as a uniquely "C-free" individual, and become aware that "C" diseases are the presumed cause of death for all. The "C" is never elaborated and the reader is thus compelled to speculate on the nature of a disease, and a species, unable to control its expansion even when that threatens its very existence.
But there is also a curiously satisfying appeal to this tale. Just as one begins to wonder if Fan, who is naive and wise all at the same time and never seems to achieve control over her destiny, really is as heroic as the story makes out, the chorus asks the same question. Throughout, the unified voice of B-Mor insists that Fan's journey changed things, yet we are left to imagine the exact nature of that change. And, towards the end of the story, when there is a reunion and a betrayal and the reader would surely be justified in expecting a neat conclusion — there are only more tantalizing questions.
Here, for me, is Lee's mastery — On Such a Full Sea is a book that involves the reader fully in the act of telling the story. There was no point at which I felt I was merely a passive listener and this is a rare experience.
Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.