Book Review: ‘On Such A Full Sea’ by Chang-rae Lee is engaging & deeply relevant

On-such-a-full-sea

Chang-rae Lee deviates sharply from his comfort zone in Such a Full Sea, the author’s first foray into speculative fiction. Readers who went into this book expecting another Native Speaker or The Surrendered will be jarred — until one realizes the disservice that comes from pigeon-holing Lee’s newest endeavour into the confines of a single genre.

Indeed, judged purely as a work of speculative fiction, Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is adequate but nothing spectacular. Famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin chafed at Lee’s perceived misuse of “social science fiction” due to his refusal to offer pedantic details of how his dystopic near-future came to be. Writes Le Guin:

[A] novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

But, evaluating On Such a Full Sea based solely as a work of speculative fiction is an unfair treatment that ignores Lee’s deliberate play across multiple genres, particularly Asian American literature. In fact, On Such a Full Sea — with its focus on protagonist Fan and the evolution of her identity as she embarks on a hero’s journey through a world that serves as metaphor for contemporary China, Chinatown, and American — clearly draw upon the “essential elements” of the Asian American genre.

Chang-rae Lee, author of "On Such a Full Sea".
Chang-rae Lee, author of “On Such a Full Sea”.

On Such a Full Sea‘s Fan is an unlikely superheroine, but a superheroine nonetheless. A small, slender and demure woman, Fan is deceptively strong, resourceful, hardy, and even equipped with a superpower of sorts. The book follows Fan’s quest as she leaves the safety of her ethnic enclave of B-Mor (an organized labour camp similar to a modern-day commune) to search for Reg, her loving (if charmingly inept) boyfriend who disappears one day under suspicious circumstances.

Again, if considered through the criteria of speculative fiction, this framework is straightforward and even a little banal — Fan (our masculinized heroine) embarks on a hero’s quest to reunite with Reg (our feminized, largely absentee male love interest) which serves as a convenient trope to explore the world Fan inhabits. Yet, this critical perspective ignores the unique way in which Chang-rae Lee invokes a tired cliche of speculative fiction — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sets off to find girl — and turns it on its ear through gender-switching his hero and love interest, and rendering his protagonist Asian American while secondary support characters are White; in so doing, Lee arrives at a compelling and engrossing exploration of contemporary Asian American female identity.

Le Guin criticizes On Such a Full Sea for not providing an exhaustive and realistic  backstory for Fan’s dystopic world, but viewing On Such a Full Sea as a metaphor for today’s world renders such details unnecessary and extraneous; furthermore, since the story is told from the  first-person plural perspective of the introspective (and under-educated) B-Mor resident, such details would be inconsistent with the book’s narrative voice. Thus, Lee’s choice to reject such details allows the book to focus more on Fan, and allow her world to be a vehicle for character study, rather than vice versa.

And, as metaphor for the contemporary world, and modern Asian Americans who live within it, On Such a Full Sea is surprisingly relevant. Fan is both a heroine with agency (she chooses to leave B-Mor) and devoid of it (she is empowered to make precious few other choices through the book). She thus becomes representative of the quintessential Asian American immigrant, whose immigrant journey is — like Fan’s — reminiscent of being cast adrift into an open sea. Her adventures, and the cast of characters she meets, are familiar archetypes with fairly obvious real-world equivalents in the modern 21st century world. Through both major plot points and delightful pop culture easter eggs (in one scene, Fan watches an unnamed anime that could only be Ghost in the Shell), Lee painstakingly builds a world both necessarily abstract and disconcertingly familiar, capable of commenting on major topics within Asian America today including multiracial identity (through a discussion of genetic mixing), human trafficking, and epicanthic fold surgery.

Lee’s choice to narrate the book through the first-person plural voice of the community of B-Mor is also a powerful choice. The unnamed narrator speaks about Fan as an urban legend, which enhances the lyricism and fantasy of Fan’s story; furthermore, the voice is distinctly familiar, invoking the tone of Chinese fairytales passed from generation to generation through poetic oral narratives, or more tangibly, the excited whispers that left-behind parents in China often use to brag about the adventures of their immigrant children. Without spoiling the ending of the book, the final act is a poignant and heartfelt commentary on cultural disconnection suffered by 2nd generation Asian Americans, and the prices we will pay to forge — and even force — a bond with our lost heritage.

Coupled with B-Mor’s hushed recall of Fan’s legend is the book’s second journey — that of B-Mor itself, as it experiences the ripples of Fan’s departure. If B-Mor is a metaphor for the capitalist/Communist China of the 21st century, the changes it experiences as a direct response to the willful departure of one of its members are a powerful commentary of how such a society sustains itself (or alternatively cannot). Life in B-Mor is further contrasted against the anarchistic Wild West of the Counties, where the basic necessities are scant and life is short, barbaric and violent — but free; and against the claustrophobic rigidity of the Communities, the book’s closest analog to contemporary, capitalist America. Again, we are less interested in how this compartmentalized world came to be, and more interested in a world where these communities are a fixed reality and so we are empowered to explore the possibility (or impossibility) of racial and class mobility within that world.

On Such a Full Sea is a fast, engrossing read that deftly draws upon aspects of speculative fiction to tell a truly Asian American feminist story. It is currently available through Amazon.

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