Chang-rae Lee’s fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea, begins in the voice of a “we” that evokes the past and discounts its significance in a single sentence. “Everyone is from someplace,” the faceless collective muses, “but that someplace, it turns out, is gone.” In Lee’s dystopia a century and a half into the future, what is irrevocably gone is the United States of America.
And yet Lee had not intended to write a book about America. When he traveled to China in preparation for this novel, his original intention was to research the lives of Shenzhen factory workers. The more Lee thought about his journey, however, the more the Korean-American author of powerful immigrant protagonists such as Henry Park and Doc Hata, of Native Speaker (1995) and A Gesture Life (1999) respectively, realized that “a component of [his] interest in China was an anxiety about the decline of American power and status.”
The protagonist of the novel, Fan, is also a descendant of immigrants to America, but On Such a Full Sea is hardly a traditional immigrant story. In the speculative, dystopian future Lee has created, Fan’s ancestors have fled to the US from a China desiccated by pollution into a toxic wasteland. In the landmass that is America, citizens don’t fare much better.
Communities, in the conventional sense, have splintered into three distinct, hierarchical strata. Atop the social order sit Charter villages, that rarefied and heavily fortified realm of society’s elite where resources remain “essentially inexhaustible” and residents live in perpetual anxiety of losing their throne. One echelon down are “grow facilities,” or labor colonies as removed from the privilege of the Charters as they are from “the life cycle of the nearest star.”
Composed mainly of emigrants from New China, grow facilities resemble internment communes where citizens are to each other no more than “a kind of cousin”; in exchange for growing fresh meat and produce for Charter villages, inhabitants are guaranteed the staid safety of gated, collective living (in other words, it is a hyper-capitalist state that has morphed into Marxist socialism). Still, if Charter villages represent the lofty heavens, and grow facilities, zestless but systematic Earth, then the open counties, the vast tracts of balkanized badlands where anarchy rules, are hell.
Before embarking on her improbable journey in search of a lost lover—and the father of her child—Fan was a member of the grow facility named B-Mor (once known as Baltimore). Because silent submission to the directorate is implicit, and most of oral history serves as a propagandistic form of self-pacification, Fan’s disappearance is peculiar.
Like any good quest narrative, Fan’s makes a full tour. Upon leaving the “kind confines” of B-Mor, she is promptly hit by a car and carted off to a rogue Counties compound where she is nursed back to health by an exiled Charter dweller named Quig. In a former life, Quig, a veterinarian, had a family and the respect of his peers—that is, until a mysterious animal virus compelled the banning of all pets and virtually bankrupted Quig overnight. Quig’s hapless fall from grace is a telling aperçu of America, post-Occupy. But the world of cataclysmic inequalities, even among the 1 percent, is a murderous and mercenary one. Quig and his partner rescue Fan in hopes of selling her off to a wealthy pedophile but not before the group falls prey to a family of cannibalistic circus performers (what a world the twenty-second century shall bring). Lee is a master of painting vivid, compelling details (an outhouse issues “an odor so vigorous it seems alive” while a human bone is “pitted and bleached white from the sun, scarred and gouged down its length by chew marks”) and that is, in part, what saves the plot from the farcical turn it assumes in summary.
Still, the depravity Lee puts on acute display begs a weightier question: Does morality have a place in a world where heaven and hell are separated by nothing more than armed guards and gilded gates? “There is no overarching system we subscribe to anymore,” the narrators say matter-of-factly. “No devotion to a deity or origin story, no antique Eastern or Western assertions of goodness and badness to guide us.” In this spiritually mean universe, survival is sacrosanct, pragmatism trumps prayers, and faith has been replaced by fear of the great C-illness, an incurable disease to which almost everyone must succumb.
Everyone, that is, except Fan’s lover, Reg, whose body is mysteriously immune and therefore of great scientific interest to those who can afford to study him. Death may be the great equalizer, but the journey there certainly isn’t. Although Charter residents have the means of prolonging their life through costly long-term treatment, grow-facility laborers are encouraged to stoically accept their fate.
As in other dystopian novels, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to The Handmaid’s Tale, “self-sacrifice is a hallmark of life here in B-Mor, one of our original and most cherished mores,” the narrators intone, because it serves the good of the tribe. But the concept of the self, indeed its existence, is one that the tribe has largely repressed in favor of a false stability. “Stability is … what we ultimately produce,” B-Mor residents tell us and, more importantly, themselves, even when it becomes evident they are recycling a collective stasis.
Curiously, it is the very lack of an individualized self—a central figure in possession of an interior life with which readers may develop emotional rapport— that enervates the narrative momentum. As the ostensible heroine, Fan feels oddly puppet-like, a plot-advancing symbol rather than a complex character in her own right. And although Lee has described her in interviews as “sui generis,” the reader rarely feels invested in her well-being, despite her many perilous encounters with misadventure. This is an unfortunate departure from Lee’s earlier novels, which brimmed with keen depictions of the protagonists’ inner trepidation and turmoil.
Most importantly, the reader’s inability to sympathize with Fan or the unflappable narrators obscures Lee’s more meaningful point of investigation.
What does it mean to be an individual and does the individual matter are questions that have animated the very best works of dystopian fiction. Like Fan, neither Winston Smith, the mid-ranking clerk who decides to rebel against Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, nor the unnamed father protecting his young son in a postapocalyptic landscape in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, are particularly distinctive characters. Yet their unremarkable nature and representation of ordinary mortals are what mark their heroism.
Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American author who grew up in a 1970s Beijing that could very well have been a sister city of B-Mor. Her new novel, Kinder Than Solitude, set in her home city, begins against the backdrop of the failed student uprising that bloodied Tiananmen Square. Among those who have dared to voice dissent is a college senior, Shaoai, whose fervor for reform clashes against the conservative impulses of her cautious-eyed elders and university administrators. In the era of gongzuo fenpei, or state-dictated job assignments, Shaoai’s rebellion (she publicly calls the government “a breeding farm of fascists”) forecloses her possibility of finding gainful employment—a source of great angst to everyone, it seems, except Shaoai.
Like Fan’s quest for Reg, Shaoai’s political protest is the ostensibly outrageous act that both centers the novel and disrupts the community in which the two women were conceived. Amid the anxiety arrives Ruyu, a preternaturally self-possessed fifteen-year-old girl who has been deposited into the care of Shaoai’s parents. Ruyu comes from a sleepy backwater province, and her purpose in moving to the capital, as dictated by her foster grandaunts, is an education and a more worldly sense of place.
Not that Ruyu herself has a particular interest in either. Rather, it is Shaoai’s cloistered Beijing neighbors, most notably classmates Moran and Boyang, who enthusiastically seek the approval of their impenetrable newcomer.
Li is a subtle, unobtrusive writer; in deceptively simple prose, she reports on the complicated inner lives of people with the lens through which they view the world. For contented Moran, life was “a series of ideal moments, all comprehensible, sometimes with small difficulties but always with a larger dose of joy” while the world, for Ruyu, signified nothing but a predictability that confirmed “the smallness of any mortal mind.”
Gradually, the mystery of a suspected murder is unspooled in snatches of flashback and rotating points of view. The question of who has committed the crime becomes as fraught as that of villainy itself. To whom should great responsibility be assigned: the killer or a society so oppressive that the crime of killing no longer feels criminal? Li’s writing is happily free of polemic, but any realist novel set in modern China must confront the oversized shadow the state casts on individual lives (as Li herself acknowledged to the Guardian, “You cannot be not political when you are writing about China”).
In one of Li’s earlier short stories, “Persimmons,” set in a northern Chinese village, a group of peasants discusses the execution of Lao Da, a fellow villager who went on a vengeance-seeking killing spree after a county official deliberately drowned his son and then went unpunished. While recognizing the futility of his violence—because a peasant is, after all, as soft and powerless as a persimmon—the villagers largely sympathize with the desperation of the crazed father. In the words of one villager, “Lao Da was the only one who died a good death, a worthy one.” But a voice counters: “What’s the point of fighting for a dead boy?” Followed by another: “What’s the point of risking our lives for a nonexistent order?”
This tension between the instinct for survival and torment of the conscience functions as an organizing principle of much of Li’s fiction. In Kinder Than Solitude, it stretches across Li’s broadest canvas yet, in different permutations and through interwoven lives that move from late 1980s China to present-day North America. The trouble with guilt—of either the sinner or the bystander—is its intractably stalkerish nature. Unsurprisingly, a pair of professors in postrevolutionary China counsel their only son: “The key to success … was the capacity to selectively live one’s life, to forget what one ought not to remember, to untangle oneself from lesser and irrelevant others, and to recognize the unnecessariness of human emotions.” All of which is to say, in short: better not be human.
But part of being human is the moral reckoning that accompanies the process of recognizing our own complacency and complicity. In post-Mao China, where “time, since the economy had taken off, seemed to move at an unreal pace, the new becoming the old fast, the old vanishing into oblivion,” the line between right and wrong has its own way of bleeding beyond recognition. “Nobody is really innocent,” Li told Guernica magazine, speaking on the subject of perennial revolutions and collective guilt in her homeland. “Everybody contributes something to the system, and everybody suffers from the system.”
Which is why her novel is as much a social portrait as it is a human one. Solitude becomes a necessity in a world so devoid of trust; it seals one person off from another while silently asphyxiating every member. There is sparse, dark poetry in something so horrifying. Aphorisms like “the best life is the life unlived,” or “one can do nothing about time, nor can one do away with time” are the curious nihilistic sighs that sometimes draw their next breath in a fatalistic query: “All young people start with untainted dreams but how many would retain their capacities to dream? How many could refrain from transforming themselves into corruptors of other untainted dreams?”
Shaoai, the most unapologetic dreamer—and doomed crusader—in the book, also appears to live its cruelest nightmare. After ingesting poison (under what circumstances, it remains unknown), she is reduced to a near-vegetative state with the mental capacity of a young child. A life wasted, perhaps, but the interspersed descriptions of the lives of her peers query whether it is a lifetime of psychological violence evaded. After all, Shaoai is the only one spared the comprehension of time, the unforgiving rapidity of its passing, and the accrued agony to which everyone in her life remains hopelessly tethered.
Like Yiyun Li herself, who moved to Iowa in her midtwenties to study immunology, Ruyu and Moran leave Beijing for the West, even if their memories of the city and that fateful summer cannot leave them (“places do not die or vanish” is an insistent refrain throughout the novel). Ruyu, indecipherable to the end, marries her way abroad, divorces (twice), and assembles an ascetic existence from haphazard, part-time jobs in a small town outside Seattle. On the East Coast, Moran finds work at a pharmaceutical company, doing research that “did not require much skill beyond a tolerance for tedium.” In their adoptive country, both women elect quiet, marginal existences. Ruyu blithely compares herself to “a piece of furniture or appliance” in the house of her employer while Moran confines herself to a small testing room, conducting experiments to ensure quality control. “Perhaps there is a line in everyone’s life that, once crossed, imparts a certain truth that one has not been able to see before, transforming solitude from a choice into the only possible state of existence,” muses Moran.
Is it a surprise that Ruyu and Moran should inhabit a rhythm of life that Fan and her B-Mor kin more or less embrace a century later in circumscribed settlements scattered across America? That we should deliberately beat a retreat into settled solitude and stability, guarding the “known harbor of yesterday,” is perhaps the most human of impulses. It is also a self-negating one that denies the possibility of choice—for the “we” of today and those of us that come tomorrow—and the enduring power of those stories we choose to tell ourselves.