Chang-rae Lee’s fifth novel, set in a troubled America more than a century hence, marks a significant departure from his previous work, much of which has been rooted in his Korean heritage. In offering the quest narrative of a 16-year-old girl named Fan, he poses some disturbing questions about what a country that’s willing to tolerate an increasing gap between rich and poor might someday resemble.
Fan leaves the settlement of B-Mor, inhabited by the descendants of Chinese workers imported to provide manual labor, where she works as a diver in the fish-farming operation that’s at the heart of its economy. She’s searching for her boyfriend Reg, who disappeared after it was discovered that he’s free of the gene that causes cancer, the disease that eventually kills most of the inhabitants of B-Mor.
With little to guide her, Fan must make her way across the open counties, an area where outlaws prey on the powerless and mere survival is an accomplishment. At the apex of the economic hierarchy and insulated from this chaos are the Charters, affluent knowledge workers who live in secure communities where even their prosperity isn’t sufficient to shield them from a pervasive anxiety.
While there’s high tension at the outset of Fan’s journey, the story’s momentum flags somewhat about midway through the novel, when she arrives in Seneca, a Charter village. She eventually finds herself in the home of Oliver, a wealthy medical researcher, and what drama remains flows from the question of whether she will abandon her search for Reg, not whether she will survive to find him.
Lee makes a studied effort not to fill in the blanks when it comes to describing the disturbing economic and cultural landscape of this world. But because the social stratification and lack of upward mobility of his imagined society feel more like extensions of current trends than radical departures, they’re all the more chilling. The story is told through a first-person plural narrator, the unnamed inhabitants of the B-Mor settlement—an unusual choice that enhances the mythic quality of Fan’s story.
Lee’s prose is sumptuous and at times discursive, and for that reason, this is a novel that demands the reader’s full engagement. The rewards for that commitment are considerable; On Such a Full Sea is an elegiac and often unsettling glimpse of a future that could be closer than we’d like to think.