‘On Such a Full Sea’ Challenges Our Notion of Free Will, but Leaves So Much More Unchallenged

What are we willing to trade off in order to have a steady income, food on one’s plate and a house over one’s head?

“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill

I will choose a path that’s clear

I will choose freewill”

— Rush, “Freewill”

There’s something to be said about what might happen if China emerges as a truly global superpower. This is more or less the tack that author Chang-rae Lee, who wrote Native Speaker and The Surrendered, the latter of which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, takes in his latest novel, On Such a Full Sea.

Being another literary writer wading into the waters of dystopian horror or science fiction – others of recent vintage include Colson Whitehead’s highly wrung zombie would-be thriller Zone One (except that it was more boring than thrilling) and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, about the slow death of the planet and what it means to one young girl – it turns out Lee, with this novel, has written about what happens when China takes over America. On Such a Full Sea, the title being derived from Shakespeare, is set in a future America where protected gated communities are thriving while the rest of the country is in lawless shambles.

One community dubbed B-Mor (really the city of Baltimore refurbished) appears to be – and to Lee’s failing, he doesn’t make this quite clear – full of Chinese people, either native or mixed, whose descendants have come from failing cities in China due to environmental disaster. In return for living a very structured and orderly life, controlled by a mysterious high-caste known as the directorate, the people of B-Mor are, at least, protected from the harsher realities and lawlessness that goes on outside its city gates.

But what the story is about, in the grand scheme of things, is a teenaged girl named Fan, who is profoundly in love with a boy named Reg. Fan has stability: she inhabits a fairly prestigious and important job for someone of her calling as a diver who cleans out the tanks that houses the fish that feed B-Mor. Aside from that, however, she could pretty much be your average American teenaged girl who looks a lot younger than she actually is. She rides a scooter. She watches vids, just like everyone her age. And so it goes. However, when Reg mysteriously goes missing after an appointment with the directorate, Fan, for reasons unexplained, thinks that he has been sent away from the community and hits the open road to find him.

Where On Such a Full Sea works, and works very well, is charting Fan’s journey as less of one about looking for a lost love – we learn fairly early on that Fan is carrying Reg’s baby – than one about a quest for independence and freedom. The reader is left to wonder, not only by the book’s murky ending, but throughout its 350 or so pages, is Fan really free by leaving her protectors? It seems that just about everyone she meets by circumstance is interested in corralling her freedoms, and at one point she is even sold into slavery of a sort to a wealthy couple in a gated community as a combination of kitchen help and as a surrogate daughter to them. Even when Fan finally meets up with her long lost family, they, too, have certain designs for her – though the outcome, at first, seems to be much more positive.

Throughout the course of the novel, Lee intersperses Fan’s long walk to freedom with scenes of life in B-Mor, which strangely almost falls apart following Fan and Reg’s absence. In what’s a bit of a whopper, almost Tiananmen Square-esque protesting breaks out, and murals depicting the two doomed young lovers start cropping up as graffiti art on city walls – all because one girl who seemingly doesn’t have a great deal of collective social consciousness decides that she would rather be on the outside than being seemingly oppressed on the in. This is where Lee interjects speculation about how American life might be under Chinese rule.

Almost immediately, the authorities begin cracking down on the city’s dissidents through subtle means, such as by raising the prerequisite scores a young person needs to crack through on yearly exams in order to become a member of the Charter society within the society, which is essentially an upper class. It’s interesting conjecture, but it not only serves to seem as mere padding to the plot in places, the ideas in Lee’s world building don’t feel fleshed out enough.

To wit, I wish that Lee had more to say about the issue of race in this novel. As noted earlier, B-Mor appears to be almost exclusively or mostly a Chinese settlement, but what about the other cities such as B-Mor that dot America? (There is mention of another city called D-Troy, which appears to be a remodeling of Detroit.) Are they exactly the same? And what about the ethnic makeup of those on the outside of these cities?

Aside from a handful of references to the race of minor characters in a flashback sequence mid-way through the book, it’s hard to tell who is Chinese from those who aren’t, particularly because the Chinese in B-Mor (and perhaps those on the outside) have, more or less, taken on Anglicized names. It would have been interesting if race had somehow been linked to one’s status, but Lee strangely never goes there, leaving the reader in a bit of a murk when it comes to imagining how this world would work as certain scenes unfold.

As well, some of the pacing is leaden, though most of the chapters effectively end on real cliffhangers, and Lee sometimes meanders into social commentary that really offers nothing insightful or interesting. It’s interesting that B-Mor appears to be built on a socialized health care model, which would be a bit unique to America: certain procedures are covered, but if you see the doctor too many times for the same ailment, you’re cut off.

And there’s a thread in this novel about something called a “C-disease”, which most people, if not all, are to die from. Does the “C” stand for cancer (a great deal of the characters on the periphery of this novel happen to smoke, which, of course, lead one to think this is the case), or does it stand for, maybe, Chinese? Again, Lee doesn’t provide the answers – and, this being dystopian science fiction of a literary bent, he doesn’t necessarily have to have them – but it would have make for a much more compelling read had some of these little details been fleshed out.

Still, On Such a Full Sea is an enigmatic and charming read, even if the fates of its main characters seems sealed from the start of the work. Which reminds me of another thing: this novel is narrated in the first person plural, not, as you might expect, from Fan’s point of view. So everything you hear in this tale is narrated from someone removed from the events, which, naturally, makes the narrator a bit unreliable. (How can anyone really know what happened to Fan after she left the gated community is a muddy detail that gets glossed over.) This happens to make On Such a Full Sea a rather gloomy and depressing read in some respects.

Yet despite whatever problems the narrative of this book might have, it becomes a page turner once it dawns on the reader that this isn’t a book about finding true love, it’s about finding oneself, and the very nature of how we are free and unfree in a society either as close to perfect as it can get or outside of it. What are we willing to trade off in order to have a steady income, food on one’s plate and a house over one’s head? This is an interesting question that the book probes. Alas it’s not as probing about other critical issues, such as race, where it’s clear that On Such a Full Sea is practically pining for such things to be said.

RATING 6 / 10
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