Chang-rae Lee’s On Such A Full Sea is so elegiac that it almost collapses into a morass of sorrow, yet it’s so well crafted it’s impossible not to see the story to its end. With his latest novel, Lee creates a world far into the future, where the boundaries between countries have frayed and a semi-dystopian state has arisen. Although Orwellian themes linger in the background, the book itself is really about one woman, and the symbol she becomes to the village she leaves behind.
Fan is a fish-tank driver and resident of B-Mor (once Baltimore), and when the government takes her boyfriend Reg for undisclosed reasons, she leaves her village on a quest to find him. Set as a kind of dream-like picaresque, On Such A Full Sea follows Fan as she explores both the poor communities in the counties surrounding B-Mor and the rich Charter towns where the elite live out their days. Not quite an indictment of capitalism, the book instead shows Fan’s impact on many walks of life, suggesting that the bold act of leaving home can reverberate beyond a person’s immediate world. Told from the perspective of the townsfolk of B-Mor, the novel places the repercussions of Fan’s actions and her own tale side by side.
While the novel is political, it doesn’t easily capitalize on the obvious class disparity Fan journeys through. While the idea of the upper class cordoning off their neighborhoods from those less well off is an obvious example of income inequality, Lee doesn't spend time mocking or criticizing the Charter folk. Instead, the book explores the idea of political figures and symbols. Once Fan leaves B-Mor, the narrators (never named, speaking for many people as one) detail the actions taken in her name, beginning first with small signs of political protest before turning into an all-out strike. But the narrators themselves change as the story goes, suggesting better insight into themselves as well as a path forward that never would have presented itself if Fan had not left home.
The character herself is a bit of a cipher, which in a different book would have been problematic. But here, Fan’s nebulousness is the point. As the community members of B-Mor tell her story, they conjecture about her actions, suggesting how she may have thought of this character or that event. They claim to know her story, to be telling it again, cobbled together from the various accounts from people in town. But none of that is ever verified. In fact, the entire novel, from the time Fan steps out of B-Mor on, might simply be supposition or a large-scale fabrication for the people of B-Mor to believe in. Fan’s story may simply be the one they tell themselves in order to rally to action, to demand changes from their government, long more invested in the Charters than small industrial towns like B-Mor.
Fan is a symbol, a woman at the heart of a story that has grown far beyond her singular decision to leave. On Such A Full Sea is a triumph because it retreats from easy political posturing and instead shows how an entire town takes ownership of her story. And the novel’s final words, a hopeful plea from the residents to Fan, suggest than even in her tragedy, she has unintentionally moved her people forward.