Whether it’s Colson Whitehead writing about zombies in Zone One or Justin Cronin envisioning the vampire apocalypse in The Passage, we perk up when literary authors tackle unexpected genres. Chang-rae Lee — a PEN/Hemingway award inner and Pulitzer Prize finalist for Native Speaker and The Surrendered, respectively — is best known for realistic fiction about displaced characters of Asian descent. He sets his latest work, On Such a Full Sea, in a chaotic, dystopian America, but I’m happy to report that at its heart it’s still very much another deeply soulful Chang-rae Lee novel.
Like a lot of the end-of-the-world allegories that are popular these days, this one views the fall of civilization through the eyes of a self-possessed teenage girl — in this case, a fishery worker named Fan. Fan lives in B-Mor (formerly Baltimore), a highly regulated industrial town that exists to serve the needs of the Charters, the one-percenters who live in luxurious gated communities. After her boyfriend, Reg, vanishes, Fan leaves the safe confines of B-Mor for the ”counties,” the violent, lawless open country where the least fortunate fend for themselves. Fan’s quiet departure turns her into a Katniss-like symbol of rebellion within B-Mor, but out in the counties she’s vulnerable to an America gone haywire.
The dystopia of On Such a Full Sea isn’t showy. As in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, there’s a welcome absence of sterile white laboratories and grand displays of oppression. instead Lee relies on specific, indelible images — a family of toothless acrobats who feed humans to their dogs, a group of anime-eyed girls held captive in a wealthy Charter woman’s home — and his usual perceptive writing to get at the warped morality that can drive a world into decline. A-