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On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
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On Such a Full Sea

by Chang-Rae Lee

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"Moment to moment we act freely, we make decisions and form opinions and there is very little to throttle us. We think each of us has a map marked with private routings and preferred habitual destinations, and go by a legend of our own. Yet it turns out you can overlay them and see a most amazing correspondence, what you believed were very personal contours aligning not exactly but enough that while our via points may diverge, our endings do not."

This month's post-apocalyptic book club selection.

B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, is a tightly-knit but regimented community of workers. They are the descendants of people from an ecologically devastated China, brought to a declining America to produce goods for the wealthy, who live in walled Charter communities.

One of the residents of B-Mor is Fan, a young woman, seemingly a model worker and citizen, who unexpectedly leaves the community and ventures alone into the dangerous 'open counties' after her boyfriend 'disappears.'

The novel alternates between telling Fan's story, and having an unnamed narrator, a B-Mor resident, philosophize about Fan and the meaning of her actions.

I have to admit that at time I found the philosophizing bits, which read a bit like a report set down for posterity, to be a bit tedious. However, at other moments, their insightfulness and the beauty of the writing really struck me (see the quote above). [Not for nothing is this guy a professor at Princeton and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.]

Still, I preferred the parts where Fan's story was actually getting told. In many ways it stays with the conventions of the genre: a quest for an unlikely outcome, a peripatetic journey during the course of which the protagonist encounters a concatenation of strange situations illustrating the variety of circumstances that people may create for themselves 'after the fall.' Although the tune is familiar, this is among the better renditions that I've encountered.

Fan is a strong, capable person, but she is just one (literally small) person in a large, hazardous world. I felt that the sense I got of even the most capable of us being like a leaf tossed in the wind was appropriate for the post-apocalyptic setting. Some people may not like that Fan, here, is a very opaque character. Her story is, essentially, being told to us by someone else, so we don't see her internal dialogue. But a large point of the book is about how others project their own dreams and disappointments onto Fan, how she becomes a symbol in her community. So I felt that worked as well.

The story slowly but steadily builds in tension. It has a sense of predictability/inevitability of fate to it which became near-agonizing toward the end. I had some doubts whether I'd be happy with any of the possible ways that I guessed it might conclude. But I actually loved the ending - I thought it had just the right mixture of openness and conclusion, pessimism and hope.

( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
This short book felt way too long. Here is yet more evidence that genre writers should be considered artists of a different kind, and that literary writers don't understand how to write a genre plot. There is a good enough set up here of a dystopian society, but the most interesting thing that happens in this novel, and only after much blah-blah, is a spontaneous uprising where the working class throws crackers etc to feed the fish in a pond. No one gets hauled off and shot for illegal fish feeding, though--still other nameless workers appear and clean out the pond and life goes on. Why? ( )
  poingu | Jan 23, 2016 |
????1/2
Rounded down to 4

Fan is a teen diver who leaves her sheltered life living and working as a diver caring for and maintaining the large fish tanks in B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Reg, who has mysteriously vanished. B-Mor is a walled city that houses workers who grow crops and cultivate fish for food for the nearby Charter Village. She sets on a quest through the counties, the now uncivilized bulk of the former US where she meets a variety of people who hinder or help her on her journey to seek both Reg and her long gone brother, Liwei, who was brilliant enough to test into the high life of a member of a Charter village before she was ever born. Fan is strong, resilient, quiet and apparently thoughtful, but the POV is a group one and we never know her deep thoughts.

Chang-Rae Lee is by far one of the best writers I've read in months. His prose is perfect for the setting and feel of the novel, and if you like literary novels and/or post-apocalyptic ones, I recommend this. So, then, why did I round it down? The lack of quotation marks (although one could argue here, as with The Road, that there is a good reason for this, but life is not nearly has hopeless here as it was in The Road), and a few things that didn't truly seem to fit in the novel, but almost everything is a spoiler with this book, which is why I'm writing so little about it.

The writing is wonderful, but not flowery, and the way it flows it also tells something I don't want to give away here given that it is such a new book and I think knowing virtually nothing about it was extremely helpful; there's no point in rewriting the jacket. Two quotes:

"Fan left B-Mor for love, but perhaps not for love alone."

then, in a later part

"We have previously indicated that Fan had larger aims in leaving B-More, but perhaps this is not necessarily true. It may be more a matter of our own shifting perspective on that brief period, that we have come to overlay upon her journeys as we revisit them over time than anything she herself was conceiving, planning, implementing." ( )
  Karin7 | Jan 20, 2016 |
Moments of excellence, yet too often gets bogged down by philosophical banter. ( )
  eenerd | Sep 29, 2015 |
Boring, and didactic. ( )
  keithostertag | Sep 22, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
These encounters have no cumulative power and often feel like random episodes improvised on the fly to lend suspense to Fan’s story. And because Fan remains more of a symbol than a fully fashioned character, we have a hard time caring what happens to her, one way or the other.
 
Watching a talented writer take a risk is one of the pleasures of devoted reading, and “On Such a Full Sea” provides all that and more. It’s a wonderful addition not only to Chang-rae Lee’s body of work but to the ranks of “serious” writers venturing into the realm of dystopian fantasy.
 
On Such a Full Sea continues Lee’s experimentation with literary realism — the way he keeps fusing it with genre fiction and extreme situations, distorting it, making it Other. Through such experiments, Lee seems preoccupied by the need to make this familiar form something different from what we think it is, so that it can more capably capture a reality that has fast been veering into the unreal.
 
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Epigraph
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
--William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
In the shadows of a golden age
A generation waits for dawn
Brave carry on
Bold and the strong

Only the young can say
They're free to fly away
Sharing the desires
Burnin' like wildfire
--Jonathan Cain, Steve Perry, Neal Schon, "Only the Young"
Dedication
For Eva and Annika
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It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.
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"From the beloved award-winning author of Native Speaker and The Surrendered, a highly provocative, deeply affecting story of one woman's legendary quest in a shocking, future America. On Such a Full Sea takes Chang-rae Lee's elegance of prose, his masterly storytelling, and his long-standing interests in identity, culture, work, and love, and lifts them to a new plane. Stepping from the realistic and historical territories of his previous work, Lee brings us into a world created from scratch. Against a vividly imagined future America, Lee tells a stunning, surprising, and riveting story that will change the way readers think about the world they live in. In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class-descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China-find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement. In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears. Fan's journey to find him takes her out of the safety of B-Mor, through the anarchic Open Counties, where crime is rampant with scant governmental oversight, and to a faraway charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend to those she left behind"--… (more)

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