Chang-rae Lee's Dystopian America

“To come clean, I enjoy talking about On Such A Full Sea more than I do reading it.”

By Geoff MakFebruary 5, 2014

    Chang-rae Lee's Dystopian America

    On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. Riverhead. 368 pages.

    IF YOU’RE somebody who spends your free time thinking about the history of civilizations, you’re likely to take one of two views on it: the directional or the cyclical. If you take the directional — or the Hegelian — view, you tend to see history like natural selection. The civilizations with the best social genes survive while those with weaker genes peter out. All is fair in directional history. The stronger civilizations only get refined over time. People who take the cyclical — or the Viconian — view tend to think that it doesn’t matter how strong a civilization is; its rise and fall is a neutral part of nature. Along the way, social developments like, say, the development of human rights, or the separation of church and state could be as vital as an opposable thumb, but the sun sets on the good and evil alike. Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London. They all come down one way or another.

    Writers tend to take this view. Perhaps that’s because the cyclical view of history inherently guarantees a tragedy, a great battle of the will against destiny. In America as of late, we’ve become especially skittish about our destinies. In an age of government shutdowns and byzantine healthcare, the sun isn’t looking as high as it used to.

    In recent years, we’ve seen a spike in writers who have turned toward the tradition of Orwell, Bradbury, and Huxley, discovering speculative fiction to be an especially pliable medium for social commentary. There are other names for it — science fiction, fantasty, apocalyptic fiction — but the story is usually the same: something is rotten in the world’s greatest superpower.

    Following the death of Ray Bradbury in 2012, a national discussion began over the literary value of speculative fiction. Around the same time, the film adaptations of Cloud Atlas and Never Let Me Go ignited a mainstream revival for both novels. We began to see more new fiction in the speculative genre, like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. A year ago, The New Yorker dedicated its fiction issue to science fiction, which featured an excerpt from Junot Diaz’s forthcoming sci-fi novel. Since then, both Manuel Gonzales and Claire Vaye Watkins have also announced plans for a work of science fiction.

    These are the times in which Chang-rae Lee’s fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea, arrives. Contrary to the historical and contemporary subjects of Lee’s previous novels, Full Sea tells the story of a futuristic, dystopian America after China has colonized the United States, making it his biggest departure to date. In this novel, Lee, whose fiction first appeared during the rise of ethnic studies in the 1990s, retains his usual political point of view; that is to say, it’s a primarily social one. There aren’t any cyborgs, and the presence of the internet figures minimally and passively. Lee’s imagination is much more concerned with questions about class and identity, which have a near deterministic power over the individuals in the cosmos of Full Sea.

    In Lee’s futuristic America, the fish are jumping and the income gap runs high. The living is easy if you’re rich, and if you’re not…well, it’s slightly uncomfortable. This is Lee’s vision of the future: China, overindustrialized, polluted its own country beyond livable conditions, so they began the search to colonize a New China. The colony of choice was America, which had become an abandoned wasteland anyway, and so they snuffed out the natives and moved in. A decrepit city like Baltimore was renamed B-Mor, and turned into a factory civilization in which its labor citizens collectively devote their lives to farming fish or vegetables. Sure, they’re paid for their work, and with actual money, and they’re allowed to buy luxury goods and go on vacation, but they money they earn can barely afford it, and the economic caste system is so locked that social mobility is nearly impossible.

    The people who buy the fish and vegetables produced in B-Mor are the scientists and lawyers who live in Charters, wealthy hermetic civilizations based in pastoral suburbs like Seneca. What lies on the outskirts of B-Mor and Seneca are the open counties. They’re poor, anarchic societies, rank with robberies and sickness and mud.

    Fan, the novel’s protagonist, is a young woman from B-Mor. She works in the fishing industry as a diver, and shows no signs of discontent at the fact that this is what she will spend the rest of her life doing. Her problems begin not with working conditions — which are, well, fine — but with the mysterious disappearance of Reg, the father of her unborn child. He’s described as simple, sweet, dumb, and earnest, and so when he suddenly goes missing, the assumption is that he wasn’t smart enough to have engineered it. Rather, he was kidnapped.

    Thus begins Fan’s odyssey in search of her lover, traveling through the three worlds of Full Sea’s universe: B-Mor, the counties, and the Charters. Lee’s description of these worlds is where he devotes a majority of his novelistic energies. Of the three, the counties get the lowest word count in the novel, probably because anarchy tends to look the same wherever you are. Crime, dirt, agrarian barter, prostitution, roadside robberies, primitive medical technology, more dirt. The more interesting worlds are B-Mor and Seneca Charter. The former is a capitalistic labor society, a dystopian vision of what contemporary agrarian China could become. The latter is a gilded venal society dependent on cheap and invisible labor, something more closely modeled to contemporary urban America, or, if we want to get specific, Bloomberg’s Manhattan, which Lee has witnessed first-hand for the last decade.

    We’re first introduced to the Charter society when Fan is bartered into paid slavery of a wealthy and childless western couple. I say “western” instead of white, because Lee never explicitly mentions race. In this world, class and origin bears much more weight on one’s identity than ethnicity. And besides, most people here are mixed-race anyway. To further complicate this, Lee describes his characters with names like Upendra, or Quig. A character named Betty is introduced before we learn that her last name is Cheung, which still gives us no evidence of what her race is. Chinese American? White and married into Chinese? Likewise, Lee’s characters may or may not have hazel eyes, or an Afro, or a face that incites other characters to slur “little new china bitch.”

    Regardless of this racially mixed America, European culture still retains its grasps on high culture. The luxurious world of the Charter is full of European villas decorated in European paintings and objets d’art. In a description about a wealthy Charter couple renovating their house, Lee writes:

    One day Oliver gathered everyone including the helpers to relate some disappointing news, namely that they could not yet go forward with the basement pool and gym project because of certain zoning restrictions, telling only Betty that it was in fact because the bank was reviewing their credit lines, which were not temporarily suspended. All Fan knew was that he somehow looked grayer in the temples, grayer in the cheeks, and although he’d position himself as ever in the middle of the kitchen chaos he picked lifelessly at his plate, downing only his unsweetened iced coffees, one right after the other, generally appearing badly dispatched enough that Betty had begun to sneak extra cream and whey protein into the drinks, which fortunately he didn’t seem to notice. Each new day that passed, two of them, three, then five or six, without word from the law firm of the contract being signed seemed to increase the time he spent up in his study, saying he was going over their financial accounts, though of course the conclusion was always instantly the same. They were running low on money, and there was no money coming in. The last few pieces of furniture and decorative items and artworks were still being delivered morning and afternoon, but a telling sign was that their wrappings and packages were no longer being opened, Betty having instructed the helpers simply to leaving them for now, that she’d do it herself later.

    And so forth. We’re not really invested in the fact that Oliver is lying to his wife Betty about his debt, and besides, a certain distance is necessary for their marital problems to be laughable. What’s dynamic about this paragraph is the overwhelming detail of domestic life, which, when truncated into one long paragraph, blurs into an absurd collage of credit reports and protein shakes. At the same time, the mind needs not travel far to connect the Oliver and Betty’s marriage to America at large — a country in denial of its own deficit spending, all in the name of sustaining a privileged and mildly amusing lifestyle. This is death by iced coffee, dramatized.

    The ingenuity of Lee’s world is thorough and wonderfully facetious in its quality to offend absolutely everyone. His critical voice is relentless in calling out the hypocrisies of all facets of society, rich or poor, Chinese or American. Nothing gets away. In his prose, Lee uses nearly every clause to reveal a function of his world, which, albeit imaginatively ambitious, can get chaotic, and it’s at times hard to know what’s important with so many flying arrows.

    Take, for instance, a scene in a poor county compound. Here, Fan saves the life of Eli, a child who tries to drown himself with stones in his pocket. This is the paragraph after she dives in and saves him:

    They never mentioned this to anyone. It seemed to them all nobody’s business. Although Fan did wonder. It seemed to her Eli’s family’s circumstance appeared no worse or better than anyone else’s in the compound; the hut he shared with his mother and younger brother and sister was like the rest of them, drafty and damp and rickety, a narrow door the only barrier to the elements, the lone window a hinged piece of cut plywood, the beds jammed tightly in one corner so that they all slept together, as was typical in the huts. In the other corner was set a small woodstove welded together out of sundry metal panels with an aluminum duct running up through the roof. Because it was summer it was used now only for cooking the evening meal, which meant sometimes frying up eggs, or game if someone shot or trapped any, but mostly it was heating stuff right in the cans. Each hut had a stove and now they took turns starting the fires with those in the adjoining huts, and so people would drift in and out to warm up their dinners and often enough everyone would share what they had, a potluck of diced carrots and mackerel and kidney beans and if someone was feeling extra generous maybe a tin of beef chili or chicken stew would get opened.

    Okay, but what about the attempted child suicide? Lee meticulously lays out the cooking utensils and the dinnertime festivities, but we don’t really care. A kid just tried to drown himself, and the reader seems to be the only one bothered by it. Fan certainly isn’t bothered by it. What’s more troubling is that later in the novel, when Fan herself is sold into slavery, locked up in the basement of a wealthy Charter couple, and raped by one of her owners, she is at best mildly irritated. Not reacting to the suffering of others is one thing, but to shrug off a personal trauma such as rape is a remarkable aberration, something Lee never fully takes responsibility for in the novel. When Fan herself doesn’t care about these otherwise horrifying atrocities, the glibness of the prose drowns out their punch, and the reader is left feeling not outraged, but numb, or maybe just distracted by all the colorful lights.


    The narrative counterpoint to the Charter village is the communal B-Mor, which is where the novel’s heart lies. The novel itself is narrated from an omniscient “we,” belonging to the villagers of B-Mor, and it’s from this perspective we read the narrated events.

    In describing their labor society’s ethos, they state, “Routine is the method, the reason, and the reward.” The citizens of B-Mor work for low wages and often get frustrated by their unaffordable health care, but their basic needs are met, no one goes hungry, and the 0% unemployment leaves them just comfortable enough to not complain. They’re calmed by soothing music, and protected from the dangers of the counties, all the while ruled by the autocratic but benevolent “directorate,” which, by the way, never makes an appearance in the novel.

    The troubles begin when the directorate, under the guise of medical precaution, conducts a series of blood tests, the results of which are lists that delineate who is a pureblood Chinese and who’s blood is “mixed” with the black natives. The narrators state:

    The truth, however, is that when you saw something like the listing, you began to look for it elsewhere, too. And after a while, when you didn’t see it, instead of not noticing or being relieved you might feel oddly unsettled, like something was off in your own belly, a pang of nausea that made you realize you were in fact a lot hungrier than you knew, which is why you were impatient with your spouse or friend, which is why you snapped at your child.

    The mere suggestion of hierarchy is enough to erode the community. The reason for these mysterious blood tests is that the directorate is looking for a certain genetic makeup that is “C-Free,” (C, being an incurable disease, resembling AIDS more than cancer, and everyone is born with it). When Reg, Fan’s lover, is kidnapped, it’s because he is the first human to be declared C-Free, and the implication is that he’s been shipped off to a medical laboratory for further study.

    Reg’s disappearance and Fan’s leaving of B-Mor sets off an unwinding. The community begins to fluster. The first in a series of inexplicable outbreaks is when a B-Mor resident, tired of the food he’s eating, throws it into the lake, polluting the fish (and considering that the economy of B-Mor is entirely dependent on its fishing industry, the demonstration is overtly political). The act is strangely contagious, resulting in a mass demonstration of throwing trash in the lake.

    After, certain villagers are seen harming themselves. Children shave their heads, men pull out teeth with their bare hands, and women in the food court punch themselves in the eyes and burn their hands with cigarette butts. The anxiety in B-Mor continues to boil until one change in fish prices sets off a mass protest:

    Someone with high access leaked a security vid of the rally, the face-ID predictably focusing on the organizers first and their deputies next and then systematically sectioning the crowd, but the drone’s zoom-and-pan kept moving too slowly and then too fast, perhaps not programmed for such large and dense and shifting numbers, and in the end the vid was rendered un-viewable, jittery and useless, until it zoomed out to capture the entire massing. It turns out we are one, if not ever how we expected.

    Compared to the passages about the Charter, the prose here is significantly more empathic, and therefore more moving. Lee chooses not to describe the intentions behind any of these acts, which works beautifully to capture the spontaneous nature of political protest. Told from the first person plural, Lee accesses the mind of the collective in protest, which gathers around a logical premise — nobody likes to pay more for fish when they used to pay less — but is in fact greater than logic, unlocking the parts of the mind where logic is subsumed into terror and fury.

    Yet, as with many mass movements, the villagers in B-Mor stop demonstrating as mysteriously as the way they began. In retrospect, the narrators describe the protests: “It’s like a dream irrepressibly vivid and captivating when it was happening but now nearly impossible to remember, not just its details but the very fact of it.” What happens is that the various demands are met and the fish prices stabilize, but nothing fundamental is changed. B-Mor returns to normal.


    The most courageous aspect of On Such a Full Sea is Lee’s decision to tell it from the perspective of a collective. One of the first things taught in Asian American studies, the classes for which Lee’s novels are often assigned, is that Western thought is individualistic while eastern thought is collective. While much of English language literature in the last five centuries has moved towards an inward representation of the individual, Lee’s fifth novel radically rejects that trajectory in attempt to tell a completely different story altogether.

    The concept itself is laudable. But what of its execution? What are the aesthetic costs involved? The advantage of a sci-fi novel like Ishigiro’s Never Let Me Go is in the sophistication of its prose, easily at the level of its great English predecessors. Most readers of that novel find it accessible because of the credible and human love story at its center. Yet Fan and Reg as lovers are cardboard-thin in comparison, a conscious decision on Lee’s part. Which is fine. Novels by no means need to be character-driven. On the other hand, sci-fi novels like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness are rich in formal experimentation, concerned equally with its subject matter and the way it’s represented. Comparatively, Full Sea doesn’t seem as interested. The prose is too conventional and familiar to successfully depart from traditional representations of consciousness. At the same time, its use of the “we” feels dry because it fails to respect its own material in the way of Otsuka’s period novel Buddha in The Attic, also told in the first person plural.

    Ultimately, Full Sea just isn’t that interested in Fan as an individual. She responds to mentions of Reg’s name the way a rabbit would salivate at the sight of a carrot, but the fullness of her humanity is denied. The best description of her psyche arrives two-thirds into the novel: “For the enigma of her longing, it might be said, was of no-longing, not one borne of selfishness or egoism, some belief that she was scaled (and now colored) larger or brighter than the rest, but that after two and a half months away… she was floated out, alone. Which was strangely fine.”

    At best, Fan reminds me of Candide, whose cheery disposition leads him through the satirized atrocities of the 18th century. Yet nothing in On Such a Full Sea ever approaches the horrors Voltaire depicted of African slavery or the Spanish Inquisition. Nor did Lee sufficiently tackle the philosophical movements responsible for the social forces that enable historical atrocities.

    For the most part, Lee’s novel stops at the behavioral level. The result is that On Such a Full Sea is a novel that does one thing exquisitely well, and then not much else. To come clean, I enjoy talking about On Such A Full Sea more than I do reading it. Unlike most of science fiction novels, Full Sea never risks feeling like a guilty pleasure paperback. Instead, I found it heady, opaque, and emotionally lacking, but not necessarily unpleasant.

    Those who will like On Such a Full Sea will like it a lot. That is to say it’s for specific readers: people who subscribe to The New Yorker without ever reading the fiction section. For those readers, it will start an important and deeply relevant discussion about class and identity. But does On Such a Full Sea rise above being a novel length Op-Ed?

    While painting and sculpture survive in Lee’s dystopian universe, novels don’t. And while the joke has a self-deprecating ring to it, the anxiety is poignant. If the relationship between the novel and today’s culture at large is becoming irrelevant, then what is the solution? Never mind Aristotelian mimesis, or the heart of darkness. Lee’s answer seems to be a novel that serves as a launching pad to talk about other things. As socially pointed as it is, Full Sea feels eerily primed for the liberal dinner party, the interview podcast, the name-drop by The New York Times columnist. One has to ask if this is the solution to the decline of the novel, or a symptom. For all of its dystopia, On Such a Full Sea’s particular prediction for the novel may not be its scariest; however, it is its most successful, because it’s the most self-defeating.


    Geoff Mak is a writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles. His literary features have appeared frequently in Forbes and Flavorwire. He has recently completed his first novel.

    LARB Contributor

    Geoff Mak is a writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles. His literary features have appeared frequently in Forbes and Flavorwire. He has recently completed his first novel.


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