Korean novelist and professor of creative writing at Stanford University, Chang-rae Lee, is a prime example of someone to look up to. Born in 1965 in South Korea, he emigrated to the States at the tender age of 3. He grew up, attended Yale, worked on Wall Street for a year, received his M.A. from the University of Oregon, and started his career as a professor.
He’s won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, to name a few. Prior to Yale, he was the Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton and director of their Creative Writing program.
But with great achievement, comes great pressure to create an immersive novel. Upon picking up a copy of On Such A Full Sea, readers expect Lee to wow them.
But is his story wow-worthy? Let’s find out.
On Such a Full Sea starts off politically charged. Set in the future, America has declined and society is divided by class more strictly than ever before. Urban neighborhoods are high-walled, self-contained labor colonies, it’s members descendants of Chinese immigrants brought over after China was environmentally ruined. Their purpose? To provide commodities, like fish and produce, to the elite living in satellite charter villages that ring the labor camps.
It is in this world that we find Fan, a fish-tank diver. After her beloved goes missing, she leaves her home at B-Mor (formally known as Baltimore) and travels through a foreign, dangerous land called the Open Countries, filled with crime, and little to no government regulation. It is up to Fan to make it to a distance charter village to save Reg, the man she loves.
China is known for their production. Pick up anything in your home, and 8/10 times, it will read “Made in China.” The issue comes with the pollution that production creates, which is a real problem in China, along with many others. Taking something real and serious, such as this, and incorporating it into a fictional story is genius in and of itself. An environmentally ruined China is not far from the truth.
In fact, this book is more than meets the eye in regards to political and philosophical meaning. It seems like another dystopian novel, but it uses that setting to showcase the issues prevailing us now, in the real world. It touches on alienation, wealth, greed, ecology, and freedom.
It makes one point that stands out more than any other, however: the harsh reality of living in a world where the only thing that ultimately matters is money. Think of the real life world we’re in. Groceries, eating out, wearing clothing, maintaining a car in drivable shape, owning pets, having essentials, like water and light to see at night…it all takes money. Money matters the most, because, without it, we find ourselves in less than desirable situations, pandering for money with the hot sun on our backs.
It is a sharp contrast between the dark plot elements being told and the author’s beautiful prose. Chang-rae Lee has a distinct, beautiful style of writing that cannot be done justice. It cannot be described accurately. It was, perhaps, the best thing about this novel, even more than the story itself…
For you have done your job, you have labored and nurtured, you have helped secure the foundations of B-Mor in this fraught civilization without heed to your own dreams, ever modest, unfinished.
— Narrator (Chapter 6 paragraph 12)
Believe it or not…the fact that Chang-rae Lee’s writing is so beautiful, makes it hard to focus at times. It makes you so sucked into his word usage, his syntax, his flow, that you forget you’re reading something dark and politically upheaving. Hence, it tends to mute his valid, deep points. It sounds ridiculous, but when an author is that talented, when his prose makes your jaw drop page after page, that tends to become the focus.
The other issue is that it does not make the greatest stand-alone novel. When you consider classics, the books that we still read, the ones that are singular and great, you should notice that the beginning, middle, and end are strong enough to support themselves. On Such a Full Sea tends to be…sequel-worthy, which means it doesn’t make the greatest singular read. This is a problem since all novels should be able to stand alone, regardless of being in a series. This, however, may be an act of the publishers, not so much Lee himself.
On Such a Full Sea is a politically and philosophically charged tale, guised under the premise of love and tenderness. It’s filled with dark corners and bright realizations. But most importantly, it makes us question life, society, our environment, and ourselves. Chang-rae Lee frames his story in his signature, gawk-inducing prose, and makes us all want to be better writers.
If you haven’t read On Such a Full Sea yet, we suggest you do.