review on January 2 described Chang-Rae Lee's novel On Such a Full Sea as "a wonderful addition not only to Chang-rae Lee’s body of work but to the ranks of 'serious' writers venturing into the realm of dystopian fantasy." The reviewer compared it favorably to similar novels by Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, and Anthony Burgess. I decided to read it.
On Such a Full Sea was a terrible disappointment overall. The author's choice of showing a distopian future by describing a naive member of society making a road trip isn't very original as far as I'm concerned. The traveler's discovery of a series of enclaves with varying types of people and levels of control by government is predictable. Her encounter with rapacious or pathological expressions of human nature didn't rise above the ordinary. Pointed parallels to the tendencies or dangers of our own society in fact become tedious and a bit hackneyed. I just don't agree with any of the favorable reviews I read.
The naive traveler, a very young woman named Fan, comes from B-Mor, once the city of Baltimore, and she travels west into "The Smokes." The one unusual feature of the novel is the narration by a collective voice representing the people of B-Mor: people who came from "New China" in the nearly-forgotten past and displaced the original inhabitants. The voice relates what "we," the people of B-Mor at some unspecified future time, know about Fan and her journey, and above all how "we" don't know what her motives were or why she made each decision to move on.
The people of B-Mor in this distopian era make a collective living by producing industrial and very hygienic food -- specifically fish raised in tanks and hydroponic, very uniform vegetables -- for more elite towns, where the people are very rich. In B-Mor people like Fan worked very hard and had little imagination or richness to their lives; they appreciated having a schedule: "it helps one to sleep more soundly, to work steadily through one's shift, maybe even to digest the hearty meals, and finally to enjoy all the free time." (p. 2; Kindle location 76)
In fact each part of the region that hasn't been totally ruined makes a living from some collective occupation serving the rich, while out in "The Smokes" poverty and living by hook or crook prevades. Ok, sounds like Hunger Games, but the NYT reviewer didn't stoop to that comparison.
Traveling in search of her disappeared boyfriend Reg, Fan discovers new sorts of people as she grows hungrier and hungrier -- she's pregnant and struggling to hide her condition from each group of people or family that take her in, mostly for terrible motives. The author does a good job using food to distinguish the old inhabitants from the "New China" interlopers, Fan's people. Food enables the author to let the reader know what he thinks of various people: vegetarians who are also murderers, poor people living on the edge, rich people obsessed with cuisine. But it's a bit predictable.
In B-Mor the "New China" people are fond of their native food; a funeral feast illustrates this. "Homemade delicacies" included "Shanxi-style smoked pork belly, stuff you hardly ever see these days. The fatty peppery scent of the dish was absolutely transporting ... but ... it was a cloud you kept wishing would blow away, so you could taste only woe." (p. 28; Kindle location 419)
As the collective "we" describes their view of Fan, sometimes the reader learns more about them; for example as they hear stories about old times "Auntie Virginia poured cups of iced tea to go with the boiled peanuts she'd bring out in a white plastic bowl." (p. 68; Kindle location 927)
During Fan's final adventure, in the poorer places people eat almost exclusively from canned goods and long-lasting food pouches, which are usable as barter as well as edible. Fan often observes them eating right out of the can or pouch. An evening meal in one household in the Smokes "meant sometimes frying up eggs, or game if someone shot or trapped any, but mostly it was heating stuff right in the cans... everyone would share what they had, a potluck of diced carrots and mackerel and kidney beans, and if someone was feeling extra-generous maybe a tin of beef chili or chicken stew." (p. 86; Kindle location 1151)
In contrast, in one of the elite compounds, she's taken to a kind of rogue fair where people dare to eat street food. It's daring to eat this rather than the very pure and artificially grown food like that raised in B-Mor: "you could get Belgian street frites, or a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, or a gravy-sopped plate of chicken and dumplings. They went to Vik's favorite, the Chinese-Korean tent, where he ordered them bowls of chive jajang noodles and a small platter of braised sea cucumber, which Fan could not stop eating." (p. 271; Kindle location 3517)
Fan's final stopping place, in the high-status compound, introduces her to one of the wealthiest families of the tale, where the head of the house believes that "Eating was obviously elementary, it was what people did most of their day, literally taking in the world." He was fascinated by food preparation, and tried to involve all his children in it "from the selection of the ingredients at the village market to the chopping and measuring and cooking (the babies given a strong whiff of everything from ginger slices to cinnamon sticks, after which they'd sometimes cry), the idea being a holistic appreciation through mindful exertions that would result in the best chance for well-being." (p. 343; Kindle location 4436)
Obviously, this noble view of food suggests that the character is out of touch with the lower classes. He too ends up not so nice, but I'll refrain from spoiling the ending. No one is nice in this distopia!