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Book review

‘On Such a Full Sea’ by Chang-Rae Lee

Anthony Russo for The Boston Globe

Why do novelists love to destroy America? Of our best living writers, a startling number have brought the United States to its knees.

From Denis Johnson in his 1985 novel “Fiskadoro” to Cormac McCarthy with his 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Road,” recent American literature syncopates to the apocalypse.

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Now with “On Such a Full Sea,” one of our most silken storytellers, Chang-Rae Lee, has imagined how it all goes wrong in the darkest installment of this literary night terror yet.

The menace of Lee’s book derives from how closely it resembles reality. The haves and have-nots in his world are neatly balkanized. Cities produce, suburbs consume, and only the rich can afford the health care that keeps them alive.

Our tale commences in B-Mor, the city dearly loved by Barry Levinson, and expertly lamented by David Simon. In Lee’s book, set in an unspecified future, Baltimore has become an urban facility for keeping the rest of the country alive.

Stocked with imported Chinese workers, B-Mor grows vegetables and fish in hatcheries to be consumed by Charters, wealthy Americans who have retreated into highly controlled suburban compounds, where they worry over carcinogens and life expectancy.

Lee narrates “On Such a Full Sea” in the collective voice of B-Mor itself in the tone of a fable: part child’s play, part instruction. “How can it matter what goes on inside those gates?” B-mor asks, after explaining the wealth of Charter communities. “You might as well worry about the life cycle of the nearest star.”

But, of course, we all orient by the night, and with “On Such a Full Sea” Lee provides a traveller who needs this guidance. Fan, a 16-year-old girl, escapes from B-mor to search for Reg, the father of the child in her belly.

Reg is black and Fan Chinese, but the race of characters in “On Such a Full Sea” does not signify to the degree it might were this a contemporary tale. Such associations pass like billboards glimpsed from a night bus. The human drama within is what remains most brightly lit.

Fan’s journey is harrowing and strange, mythically told. Like Odysseus on his travels home, she must discern who plans to capture, who to merely help her. Not far from B-more, Fan has her first test when she is struck by a car on the roadway.

A former Charter couple who has fallen off the economic ladder picks her up and carries her to the Smokes, a lawless mountain territory. Quig, a former veterinarian, nurses her back to health. He feeds her. And then he trades her to a family of Charters for cancer medication.

Betrayal has always been Lee’s metier. In “Native Speaker,” his spectacular 1995 debut, he conjured a Korean-American striver named Henry Park who is rewarded for his efforts in becoming authentically American with a job spying on a rising Korean-American politician.

“[I]n every betrayal,” Park says at the end of the book, “dwells a self-betrayal, which brings you that much closer to a reckoning.”

The self-betrayal that animates “On Such a Full Sea” is a nationwide one. Everyone is culpable. Cancer might be the illness that plagues Lee’s world, and ours, but the bigger problem is one of narrative.

Every stratum of society in Lee’s world dehumanizes the next. B-mor workers tell urban legends that if you leave the facility you will become sausage for the Parkies, wild bands that roam the wilderness.

To Charters, girls like Fan are objects. The woman to whom Quig trades Fan looks at her the first time, “as blankly as she might a statuette in the gallery.” “Does she speak English?” is her only question.

For a time, Fan is imprisoned in this woman’s house, alongside a group of other Asian girls who have had surgery to enlarge their eyes. They all wear nightdresses, and live in an attic room where day-by-day they inscribe the legend of their existence onto a mural.

There are times when “On Such a Full Sea” feels like it is has imagined an America not largely Latino, but rather Asian. B-mor workers sip lychee smoothies, they retreat – if they’re bad – to New Inns, which resemble the love hotels of Japan.

“On Such a Full Sea” drifts on a sea of these tales and associations, sometimes sluggishly. Eventually, Fan’s own rises to the top. In the facility, Fan worked as a diver in the hatchery tanks, coaxing the expertly grown fish toward a chute that ensured their harvest, or, in other words, their own deaths.

After her disappearance, Fan becomes a kind of legend to B-mor: sometimes a cautionary tale, in other moments a heroine. Lee has so carefully calibrated this book it’s not until we reach its conclusion that we know which route she will chose. She eventually winds up living with a medical researcher, who will care for poor people who prostitute themselves to him.

One need only glance at another section of this newspaper to understand how little this plot twist should strain credulity. Here is the genius of “On Such a Full Sea.” What feels like a breakdown in social order is merely a darker restructuring. What will we trade of ourselves, the novel asks, for more?

Fan sees this transaction for what it is because she has left the familiar behind. “We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks,” B-more reminds. Fan, however, has none of these, just her own conscience to consult. With this strange and magically grim book, Chang Rae-Lee has allowed us to leave the familiar behind, all so we can see it more clearly.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”
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