I've never been a fan of grand hyperbolic declarations in book reviews, but faced with "On Such a Full Sea," I have no choice but to ask: Who is a greater novelist than Chang-rae Lee today?
His new, his fifth — where have you been? — book seals this deal. A chilling, dark, unsettling ride into a dystopia in utopia's guise, this is a novel that might divide but will no doubt conquer where it matters most.
What made me appreciate Lee's work long ago was his shape-shifting. That's never an easy task, especially if the market has anything to do with it, always so ready to stamp writers with "immigrant writer" "writer of color" and "hyphenated American" tags. But every work has been distinct: from the Korean American culture clashes of 1995's "Native Speaker" to the Italian American suburban patriarch in crisis in 2004's "Aloft." On the surface, all that has linked them is disarming, handsome prose.
Lee understands America more than almost any writer I've ever read. Born in Seoul, an immigrant to the U.S. just three years later, Lee eventually went to Yale and worked on Wall Street, only to abandon it after a year for a life of fiction writing and teaching. In 1999 he made it to the the New Yorker's "20 Writers for the 21st Century." Despite "writers'-writer" critical laurels, awards and more than one bestseller, he's yet to be a household name outside the most literary circles, partly, I think, because his versatility has made him too slippery to simply peg.
In this new novel, Lee creates his own radical mythology, tonally, ambiently and architecturally, in sketching a post-America future made up of three rungs of society: labor colonies, free open counties, elite Charter villages. In B-Mor, formerly known as Baltimore, laborers are descended from the Chinese, and their only purpose is to work in Brave New Agriculture (tank-raised fish and vegetable production) at the service of the Charters.
It's in B-Mor that we meet our ingénue Fan, 16, a fish-tank diver. When her lover Reg disappears one day, Fan decides to disappear as well, launching a quest to find him — and ends up threatening the entire fabric of the rigid societal structure.
Though the plot outline might sound similar to the kind of dystopian fiction flooding bestseller lists and young adult shelves, Lee does something altogether more ambitious — not simply as genre artists do via plot but most ingeniously here via style.
He dips this challenging premise into a daunting point of view: a first-person plural that creates an unnamed collective consciousness — an often thrilling, always baffling flirtation that over the years has been owned by writers like William Faulkner and Ayn Rand and, more recently, Jeffrey Eugenides ("The Virgin Suicides") and Joshua Ferris ("And Then We Came to the End"). It can be an alienating choice (necessitating numerous violations of the classic creative writing tenet "Show, don't tell") but also a very effective one if your voice requires a certain experimental eeriness.
Lee, however, infuses the uncanny notes with warm tones: "We are the sinister and the virtuous and most everything in between, and we know too well that in their visitations the fates appear to pay us scant attention." His "we" is remarkably un-royal, gently and almost earthily nosistic, a chorus that feels remote and yet related to the reader, as if we could hear our own offspring, a network of strangers and yet blood. For example, Lee's narrators are prone to using exclamation points ("Weren't we alive!") more than your average yarn-spinners of the dystopic.
In some ways this is Lee's most trying work — reading "On Such a Full Sea" will weed out the skimmers, as its narrative is necessarily warped to a taxing inertia essential to its story. It is full of lyrical but densely bleak sentences like "Those who can remember the tales of the old-timers report that in the heydays it was as if the entire valley and everything in it were slowly scorching, all the rubber and plastic and alloys, all of what little real wood remained, all the rotting food and garbage, the welling pools of human and animal wastes, such that in the end it was as though the people themselves were burning, if from the inside, exuding this rank, throttled breath that foretold a tortuous, lingering demise."
A psychological thriller can feel like a wacky, much-deserved career timeout gig for many established writers — but Lee takes it on without the indulgence, frivolity and condescension of a certain highbrow set who stoop to commercial ventures as vanity projects, as if the novelty alone is noteworthy, as if showcasing range becomes the final commission of the tried-and-true literary writer.
Fan has a universality that transcends any of the oddities of the plot; her journey to discover community and family in a world that has moved long past them is something all of us can increasingly relate to. And at its heart the book is most concerned with her specific adventures and encounters with various aspects of the fractured society — not with the mechanical ins and outs of the universe.
Resisting the genre writer's eagerness to display the breadth and width of his imaginative feat, Lee doesn't see the merit in just exposing the intricate wiring of his fabrications; instead, he lets his heart walk the walk with Fan and lets the "facts" of this future settle into a supporting role.
Lee has said he's always been interested "in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance," so this book may be closer to the others than meets the eye in a fundamental sense — and in a sense offers the link to all his works. The outsider narrative seems like a central concern for him, and here, not just in spite of but perhaps because of all the fabulist conceits, we see the other in its most elemental incarnation.
The title of the novel is taken from "Julius Caesar," in which Brutus declares: "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."
The very opportunity and freedom that Shakespeare details are vividly on trial in "On Such a Full Sea's" captivating theater of oppression and compliance, and in that way the novel most devastatingly offers a cautionary tale of a future that only this past — our present — could create.
Khakpour is the author of "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" and the forthcoming novel, "The Last Illusion."
On Such a Full Sea
Riverhead: 368 pp., $27.95