Sunday, January 12, 2014

On Such a Full Sea

Chang-rae Lee

I keep seeing her, Fan, the protagonist of Lee`s novel On Such a Full Sea. I see her clearly for a few seconds, then she is gone behind a line of trees or row of houses. She is always moving forward, never back to the familiar, to some measure of security. Where are you now, Fan? I feel like one of your people left behind in B-Mor. I want to add to the graffiti. Your leaving us was a sign. Everything is not good here. We are not protected and we are not content.

Why can't I let go of this novel? Because Chang Rae Lee's dystopian fiction of a future America is too near. It's an unsettling vision, his declining America, with its abandoned neighbourhoods turned into self-contained labor settlements where workers are descended from “originals” who, to escape an uninhabitable China, were brought to America to cultivate fresh, unspoiled, seafood and produce for wealthy residents living  in charter (walled and gated) villages. For their contributions, workers in the  B-Mor (Baltimore) Settlement live secure and predictable lives designed for contentment, but when two of their number disappear, they are forced to recognize the discontent and violence that permeates society. Yet, it's Fan's quest for her boyfriend Reg and their unborn child that invites possibility into this dystopia; the possibility of free will acting on fate to change things, how life is lived, how we respond to what is going on around us.

Chang-rae Lee

Despite being told that it is dangerous to leave the settlement because you could be kidnapped by anarchic vagabonds in the “open counties,” Fan moves without fear and understands and trusts in “the improvisational nature of her will.” It's this quality that inspires the other characters in the book and us, as readers.

I found the most disturbing yet surprising part of the book to be about the girls who live with Miss Cathy and Mister Leo in one of the charter villages. There are seven of them living hidden, in a single room. Having arrived separately, each as a young girl, they are now in their late teens and address each other by their number—one being the first girl who started living in the room. The girls spend their days imagining their lives, which “Six” depicts in a mural on the wall.  When Fan joins them as number “Eight,” the girls become obsessed with her story and the mural expands to include greater possibilities for them all.

This is a strange book. I couldn't get into Lee's writing style at first but then the story, Fan's journey, and a feeling of the uncanny, of a here but not here, really kept me reading and thinking long after the last page.

Morvern McNie has a collection of old writing books--lined Hilroys with loose pages, several hard cover journals with flap closures--and in each you'll find a few pages of rebuke for spending too much time reading instead of writing.

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