- Mundane Globalism
432 Pages; Print, $16.00
There’s something strangely familiar about Chang-Rae Lee’s 2014 novel On Such a Full Sea. In an age in which the notion of global society—both in both its current and possible future incarnations— is so ubiquitous, Lee’s novel might strike readers as a journey into familiar novelistic territory. With its vision of a near-future landscape—part of what is currently the USA—that has undergone substantial social and economic transformation, On Such a Full Sea is recognizable as another example of writing that anticipates how contemporary social practices might unfold, evolve, and dissolve. Lee’s fifth novel (following his earlier exploration of hybridized identities and experiences in Native Speaker (1995), A Gesture Life (1999), Aloft (2004) and The Surrendered (2010)), On Such a Full Sea confirms his position as a writer who is to be commended for refusing the seductions of inflated diction and for declining the rhetoric of the remarkable.
In contrast with Lee’s other novels, On Such a Full Sea looks forward in time, imagining a world in which the nation-state is no longer the prevailing apparatus for managing populations and maintaining social bonds. It offers a chronicle told in retrospect, by an unnamed narrator, of events in the life of Fan, a fish farmer who elects to leave her community in search of her boyfriend and father of their unborn child. Fan’s travels take her from the environment of B-Mor, an enclosed society of growers, makers, and providers that is situated where Baltimore once stood. After experiencing the precarity of the space beyond B-Mor—the Counties, a region that offers no protection against the extreme temperatures that have become commonplace, and where micro-communities are sustained through an unregulated trade in goods and people—Fan finds herself exchanged to become [End Page 14] a domestic worker in one of the Charter villages; these exclusionary and exceptionally privileged districts defend themselves against the depredations of the Counties, and are supplied with goods by worker settlements such as B-Mor.
Apart from pointing to some possible causes for this fragmented order’s emergence (including climate change and the contamination of food stocks), this novel offers few clues as to precisely what has led to the departure from “what seems to us a prehistoric world.” An undisclosed event has resulted in large-scale immigration to the US from China, but—again—what produced such a demographic shift, and how it resulted in the nation-state’s abandonment, is left unexplained. As ellipitically unforthcoming as Bartelby’s response to questions about his past, this novel prefers not to provide readers with a detailed narrative of how its present has been formed. “It is known where we come from,” readers are told at the opening of the novel,
but no one cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone.
Not bothering with the inheritances of the past, Lee’s novel leaves readers with little more than the recognition that belief systems are as hegemonically ordinary to those who populate its pages as ideas about social value are to those in the USA today.
Such historical elision leaves no room for On Such a Full Sea to indulge in a foreboding sense of catastrophe or crisis, and it is this withdrawal from a hyperbolized depiction of the passage from the present to the future that points to one of this novel’s most conspicuous, and most compelling, qualities: its divergence from the anxieties that are so menacingly present in dystopian fiction. On Such a Full Sea turns away from imagining a world that has suffered a disastrous collapse, returning to atomised pre-modern community, the resurgence of agrarian localism, or a brutal state of scarcity (a territory explored by Margaret Atwood, Russell Hoban, Cormac McCarthy, and David Mitchell). But it also departs from what is often regarded as the only other option for speculative novelistic writing...