On Such a Full Sea x2

onsuchOn Such a Full Sea
by Chang-rae Lee
2014/368 pages
read by B. D. Wong 11h 8m
rating: 9  / dystopian fiction
(read and listened)

I had to read this one again!  It woudn’t let go of me.  I kept thinking about it and couldn’t get into another book  due to the impact of Lee’s story.  That meant I had to revisit and get my confusion sorted out, the episodes straightened out,  the themes highlighted,  etc.  So I got the Kindle version and a good chair and settled in to read and listen,  both, and from the beginning.

Yes,  I reread books occasionally,  but rarely back-to-back.  This is one of only two books I can think of where I did that – the other one was “The Satanic Verses” by Salmon Rushdie where I closed the book,  said to myself, “Huh? How did that happen?” then  turned the book over and started in again.   Whew.    With “On Such a Full Sea” there had been several episodes, some with overlapping characters,  I just flat wasn’t sure I understood the ending and my confusion had to do with the themes as well as what had transpired throughout the book.

I’ve checked other reviews and it seems that they are either copies of the New York Times or they all think differently about this book!   To get what some of them have included I’d have to read the book a few more times.  –  (lol – this does NOT mean it’s not there).

On second reading I find that what we have here is fiction of a kind of travelogue-dystopian fiction told in a picaresque style.  The writing is “dream-like” but I’d call it more like under the sea  – where fish live – with so many metaphors related to that.

The Narrator is unnamed but supposedly speaks for the community of B-more which is the city of Baltimore reconstituted after some kind of mass environmental disaster and repopulated several generations prior with Chinese immigrants.  (Some reviewers say there are different narrators – different people speaking for the city of B-more.)

The reader is never told what has happened between our present day reality and this future world (as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), but there are clues about the environment being abused beyond it’s ability to sustain  human life;  a capitalist system that has mostly abandoned any sense of communal responsibility.  Only those who are admitted to the Charters or B-More (the providers for the Charters)  are protected.  You can get into the Charters only with lots of money – winning the lottery,  being in the top 2% of the official “tests,”  being so beautiful or talented as to warrant celebrity status.

We get the idea of how B-more is now from the Narrator(s) – very capitalistic but with a heavy dose of socialist underpinnings – like health care and schooling.  But B-more is only one layer of society – a kind of lower-middle class layer – there is no real middle class.  And B-more is called a “facility” – it’s totally dependent on the Charter communities for survival – they buy the B-more product, fish.   The people of B-more remember Fan and Reg and they tell the story in oral histories – it’s not in the official school text books.

But On Such a Full Sea is not a political diatribe or a capitalist or elitist mashing book – it’s more like a “people will be people” book.

From the Narrator’s point of view Reg, the boyfriend of  Fan, a 16-year old tank diver for a fish farm in B-More, has disappeared. This is not usual but it’s not rare, either.   Fan is pregnant and takes off after him although absolutely no one has any idea of where he might have gone and it’s very rare for anyone to leave B-more.   She follows her instincts and travels north through the Counties – the rural lower class areas which are pretty anarchical.  The upper class and elite folks live in places called Charters where the business, cultural, educational,  medical,  and good-life competition rules.  These are the elite.

En route to find Reg,  Fan encounters several different people and their communities first in the Counties.  The first is a family with a huge number of children who are acrobats, living under a tree.

Then there’s a doctor Quig (a vet who  has an interesting back-story of life as a person fallen from the Charters.   His patients owe him their lives and he provides for them but it’s a slavery of sorts – selling yourself or someone else into bondage.

At some point (the chronology of the episodes is still mixed in my mind) she is  traded in some way to help pay for another debt and Miss Cathy, the widow of an oil capitalist,  lives in a rather odd arrangement in a very reclusive “family” group.   Following this episode  Fan goes with Vic,  a fairly rich single doctor in the Charters,  and he introduces her to  Oliver and  Betty – the most elite of the elites.


Chang-rae Lee


The main question is – with all she wants provided to Fan, why did she voluntarily leave B-more?  (This is the big question to the Narrator who is from B-more.)  Is she free?  The title is from Julius Caesar by Shakespeare:

“On such a full sea are we now afloat / And we must take the current when it serves / Or lose our ventures.”

Fan is a rather odd girl with a strong sense of self  (free will) which pretty much entrances all who meet her.  They help her for some reason.  She’s not even sure why she is bound to find Reg – or why she left  B-more where she really loved her job and life.  But wherever she lands (not always her choice)  she always handles herself with dignity and courage.

fullseaThe book is really more about all these situations in which Fan finds herself,  how they are organized, what motivates people, the dangers, the aspirations.  Health is the number one motivator in almost all the situations – from the lowest trade yourself (or your child) to the veterinarian in exchange for fixing your leg through being satisfied with “directorate” allowances,  all the way up to making sure you and your family only eat the absolutely freshest most healthy products available – no matter the cost.  Fish are best – the best fish, grown under primo conditions,  which is what B-more provides.

The whole thing may be an allegory for how we live today from the Counties in West Virginia to the upscale enclaves in New York State,  from Tulare County (moi) to Palo Alto.  But again,  it’s not really a “political” or anti-capitalist book.  It’s a pro-people book – pro-personal freedom more than anything.

Another theme  is “Where you are.”  That is what Fan apparently said when she left B-more and it seemed to the people as though there should be more to the sentence.

There are way too many generalizations about people and their motivations in this book to be something I’d normally enjoy.  But in this case the Narrator tends to be speaking for and/or about B-more, not necessarily the reader – so I was able to overlook it pretty easily.

 Bottom line – read this book and when you’re finished,  read it again.


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