Dystopian fiction is a classic genre, one with a lot of history, but lately it has become popular like never before. While that explosion in the popular consciousness comes primarily in the form of young adult novels that range from quite good to truly abysmal, there’s no shortage of literary fiction writers trying their hands at it either. Chang-rae Lee, who made his name with the heartfelt realism of books like The Surrendered and Native Speaker, dips his toes into the dystopian pool with On Such a Full Sea, a novel in which (say it with me) a teenage girl living in the ruins of a once-great city challenges the authority and beliefs of her walled-off enclave. On Such a Full Sea is an undeniably powerful novel, but it’s also a surprisingly sloppy one.
At some point in the past, something awful happened to the world. A group of refugees from China made their way to a mostly-desolate America, repopulating her great city in new work camps, where they grow food and provide other basic services for the ‘Charters’, the hyper-wealthy, mostly-Caucasian elite that lives in walled, heavily policed semi-rural enclaves. It’s a system that mostly works without trouble, in part because everyone is terrified of the areas between cities – known only as the counties, they’re where things have really gone to hell – and because seemingly everyone in the world is hyper-susceptible to something called ‘C-illnesses’ (basically, cancer), and only Charters have the resources to educate and train doctors. Into one of these work enclaves are born Reg and Fan, a pair of innocents who become lovers as teens, seemingly utterly normal… until one day, Reg simply vanishes. No one knows what happened, though rumors sprout up eventually that a vague controlling entity known as ‘the directorate’ may have had him abducted, so she sets out into the counties on her own, intent on finding her lost love.
It’s a compelling hook, but this is no melodrama; indeed, the book could use a little more passion. The book is narrated, seemingly, by the collective ‘we’ of Fan’s community, albeit a ‘we’ who inexplicably knows far more about Fan’s adventures than they possibly could – indeed, how they know at all is never explained. The narration is chilly, distant. Often beautiful in its language and descriptive power, it at times feels like reading a myth in the making… but because of this, we never get much into Fan’s head. She’s a frustratingly passive lead, a blank slate onto which everyone around her seems to attribute their own best qualities. Is this commentary on the tendency of YA dystopian fiction to have teen heroines who utterly lack character so as to make it easier for readers to project onto them whatever they please? Possibly, but that doesn’t make Fan any more interesting to spend time with.
On Such a Full Sea is an incredibly lyrical novel, so it’s easy to forget how shapeless it often feels once you put it down. Lee’s dystopia is well-realized in its broad strokes, perhaps more so, conceptually, than any I’ve read in a number of years, but its many excellent pieces never quite came together for me. I loved the modern mythologizing of Fan, but wish that Fan herself was more than a saintly cipher; I found myself enamored of the world Lee created, but often found myself questioning specific touches that never cohered. On Such a Full Sea is not an easy novel to love – too broad, too distant – but it is an easy book to admire. I hope Lee dips his toes into this genre again in the future, though I also hope what results is more recognizably human than this.
Cal Cleary is a librarian, critic and writer in rural Ohio. You can find more of his work at read/RANT and Comics Crux.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Riverhead. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.