Climate change, cataclysmic inequality, colony collapse disorder, bird flu, swine flu, suitcase bombs, bisphenol A, all the potential pandemics and their dread acronyms, all the persistent toxins known and unknown: we live with a generalized angst derived from the sense that apocalypse-level doom has been pending, more or less plausibly, for most of living memory.
So, we crave dystopias: we want the bruise-pushing satisfaction of extrapolating from today’s woes into a more-woeful future. And we get them, from the movies and from TV (how many blockbusters can you name that take place “in a world where...”?). And in books, where any number of accomplished writers willing to be shelved in the speculative fiction section (your Vonneguts, your Octavia Butlers, your William Gibsons) have been busy speculating on apocalyptic futures ever since a collapse started seeming imminent.
But the future is largely taboo territory for authors who don’t subscribe to a genre, Margaret Atwood being the obvious exception. (Her MaddAddam trilogy embraces the rules of dystopian fiction with gusto: the future, in addition to being a steaming trainwreck, comments pointedly on the present at every turn.)
Chang-rae Lee’s new novel, On Such A Full Sea, takes a different approach. Lee is a literary novelist’s literary novelist, admired for his sensitive, serious and compelling books about the fallout of traumas in the inner lives of Korean immigrants to the United States. But here, he departs from his usual territory to make a bold, experimental leap into the future, complete with howling wastelands, universal cancer, and entire American cities given over to the practice of aquaponics. It’s speculative, but it’s also genre-defying: in the end, it’s not exactly a dystopian novel.
It starts off like one. It’s set in the distant future, when economic catastrophe has gutted America’s industrial cities. Social stratification has reached grotesque proportions, with a tiny minority of Americans living in ultraluxe gated communities called Charters, while the rest struggle in the anarchic Counties. Into this arrangement, Chinese labourers have been imported en masse from their environmentally devastated cities to populate the abandoned Detroits of the United States. They have remade these cities into collectivist paradises, where, using high-tech intensive farming techniques, they produce food for the Charters. The story begins in one of these settlements, B-Mor (formerly known as Baltimore), where citizens farm fish and vegetables together in a state of placid, hard-working collectivism.
So far, so familiar: current anxieties about inequality, about China’s role as a kind of global labour pool, find expression as the story unfolds. But Lee seems to lose interest in the dystopian project once he’s established his brave new world’s parameters.
Into this setting, Lee introduces the legend of Fan. A B-Mor fish-tank diver, Fan leaves the safety of the collective to search through the Counties for her lost boyfriend, who seems to have been abducted by Charter scientists when tests revealed he was the only person in America without cancer.
Once outside the walls of B-Mor, Fan is swept along in a series of adventures that morph from dystopian satire into a hybrid of phantasmagoric dreamscape and epic quest narrative. Rendered in Lee’s cool, pastel prose, Fan’s increasingly nightmarish encounters with a mercenary vet-turned-surgeon, a family of sinister acrobats, and a cloister of manga-obsessed human dolls are pleasingly, unconventionally dreamy, almost psychedelic. There are still moments of satire, particularly the episode in which a wealthy Charter couple sink millions into recreating an “authentic” B-Mor streetscape in their posh suburban backyard. But the plot is more about Lee’s unbridled imagination than about the possible consequences of present conditions.
The book’s most audacious experiment is also its greatest weakness. B-Mor’s culture, we are reminded often, is a collectivist one; little value is placed on the individual. Accordingly, the book is narrated by an anonymous person who refers to him- or herself as “we”, as a constituent of the B-Mor hive-mind: “Whenever we tell the story of Fan, details are apt to change,” they say, for example. Or: “When we were much younger, and as yet unaware of certain aspects of B-Mor, there was an uncle of ours who lived in one of the clan row houses on the block”. Fan’s adventures are recounted throughout as legend and hearsay, filtered through the collective mind, subject to distortion. We can’t have access to any definite facts about what happens to Fan; and we have even less access to her thoughts and feelings about it all.
This conceit acts as a constant reminder that even present modes of consciousness are subject to change, and that individualism isn’t necessarily the apex of cultural evolution. But for a reader used to the conventions of contemporary literary fiction, it also acts as an emotional muffler; it blunts with distance the story’s emotional peaks and valleys. You can be beguiled by Fan’s story, and fascinated by Lee’s view of the future; but you can’t entirely make yourself care. Maybe individualism is an arbitrary, even doomed, worldview, but we still want it in a novel.