Isolation is a major theme in Chang-rae Lee‘s first four novels, including “The Surrendered,” a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. The theme recurs, but in an unusual manner, in his new novel, “On Such a Full Sea,” published this week.
The book is set in a future dystopian version of America, in which a failed economic system has resulted in a society literally separated by class: The workers, descendants of a long-ago mass emigration from environmentally destroyed China, are contained within climate-controlled, high-walled cities, where they are content to produce food for the upper class, who live in surrounding villages. Everything else – “the open counties” – is lawless and largely uninhabitable.
People start mysteriously disappearing, and the plot is set into motion when one of the workers, Fan, leaves the settlement in search of her lover. Fan becomes a major source of interest, and “On Such a Full Sea” is an account of her story as told, in first person plural, by the community.
“The ‘we’ does profoundly question and wonder why she would leave the safety and security and routine of their labor settlement,” Lee, a professor of creative writing at Princeton, said via e-mail. ” ‘We’ can only speculate as to what Fan thinks or feels, and in doing so reveals as much about themselves as anything about Fan.”
Speculation grows, and Fan becomes legendary. As she does, what begins as a sort of account of the state of civilization becomes a reckoning; the people want to identify with the individual and rethink what is possible. In one passage, the narrator tries to understand Fan: “She has a special conviction of imagination. Few of us do, to be honest. We wish and wish and often with fury but never very deeply. For if we did, we’d see how the world can sometimes split open, in just the way we hope. That it and we are, in fact, unbounded. Free.”
Lee’s own process in writing “On Such a Full Sea” reflects that wisdom. He started by writing a social realist novel of contemporary China, doing research and making the necessary visits. But he eventually put that book aside because, as he told NPR in a recent interview, “I didn’t quite feel I had enough of a fresh angle on it.”
Passing East Baltimore by train on his way from Washington, D.C., to New York, as he has for 35 years, and with the thought of finding a new story in mind, he told NPR that he thought, “You know, it’s just a pity that this neighborhood has been abandoned and rehabitated and abandoned again, serially over all these years, and I thought, ‘Why can’t just some – I don’t know – village from China settle this place.’ And I was just idly thinking that, and I thought, ‘Oh gee, well, what would happen if such a thing happened?’ What a crazy, crazy idea.”
“Obviously some of that original project informs ‘On Such a Full Sea,’ ” he e-mailed, “particularly the parts having to do with the labor colony of B-Mor. But the idea to set the story in the future came after thinking about the kind of nation we might have one day, one strictly divided by class, and how that society might welcome foreign workers to provide needed/wanted products.”
IF YOU GO
Chang-rae Lee: 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., S.F. (415) 863-8688.
Photo by Annika Lee