Monday, May 26, 2014

Dipping a Line into a Full Sea

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee is not a book that would ordinarily merit a review. I neither loved it, nor hated it, and there was nothing about it that struck me as outstanding either as literary technique or social insight. The main reason I am blogging about it is that a couple people who follow me on Twitter expressed interest in discussing it with me. Since "a couple people who follow me on Twitter" counts as a significant portion of my known audience, I am obliging them by creating this review, as a jumping-off point for discussion. This post does not pretend to discuss the book comprehensively; instead, it's a collection of stray observations.

For much of the book, the first 200+ pages, I thought I would use the book as an occasion to discuss the use of first-person-plural narration. Who was this "we" who was narrating? I am not opposed to first-person-plural narration. In fact, I have used it in stories of my own (though not stories that I have successfully published yet, so perhaps I am no authority on its use). Its most canonical form is the first-person-plural-collective of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, in which the hegemonic voice of a small, repressive, insular community renders its judgments authoritatively. Given the insularity and repression of Lee's "B-Mor," I got off on the wrong foot by assuming that the "we" was Faulknerian. How, then, could it presume to tell the story of Fan, a protagonist who is distinctive precisely because she left the community? What I came to realize, gradually at first and then having it explicitly confirmed late in the novel, is that the "we" of this book is a different "we," the first-person-plural-legendary, of a small revolutionary collective within B-Mor that is stitching together what is known about Fan, and what can only be hypothesized, into a story meant to galvanize action. That is not a "we" that I have seen elsewhere in fiction, though it is familiar to me from politics. Should I have recognized it sooner? Perhaps. Should Lee have clued the reader in earlier? Perhaps. This is a matter of technique that I have struggled with whenever writing in the first-person-plural: How soon to inform the reader of the nature of the "we"? Do I feel that Lee has succeeded? Not as well as Faulkner, but neither has he utterly failed. Do I have an alternative set of rules to propose? Ask me if and when some of my stories in the first-person-plural get published.

I am left wondering how widely Lee, whose previous novels are in historical or contemporary realist modes, had read in the corpora of science fiction and science-fiction criticism before trying his hand at it. Several SF critics who are better read and more accomplished than I am--not the least of whom would be Samuel R. Delaney, have argued that science fiction does not predict the future so much as it comments upon the present, often satirically. That this is what Lee is trying to do, obviously. Too obviously. Consider the Charters: These are the top rank of the social hierarchy of the former United States in dissolution, a kind of archipelago of privately administered, heavily gated communities that are fed by the Facilities (such as B-Mor) and protected from the anarchy of the "Open Counties"--the rest of the country, drawn as a kind of coastal stereotype of contemporary Arkansas in extremis. I am very familiar with the like of the Charters, despite my politics: I work at an elite private college where the annual cost of attendance approaches $60K, and more than 50% of the students are "full pay". I live in one of the five richest towns in an otherwise down-at-the-heels rural state. I am used to contemplating which of my neighbors and day-to-day acquaintances would try to kill me "when the revolution comes," or vice versa. Lee's novel is predicated on the simple thought experiment of, what if it doesn't come? What if we devolve even further into plutocratic oligarchy? The problem is that the culture of the Charters is instantly recognizable to anyone who lives or works in the sorts of places that I live and work: the exercise habits (obsessional), the diet (kale and swiss chard), the parenting style (alternating wildly between benign neglect and helicopter), etc. Considering that the present culture of Americans of the upper-middle-class and higher is a fairly recent construct, demonstrably different from that of their parents and grandparents, that 200 or so years later there would be such rigid cultural stasis stretches the bounds of plausibility. I don't say that it is utterly implausible. There are plenty of historical examples of ruling elites falling into centuries-long replication of hidebound norms, in all corners of the globe. But for it to be plausible there would need to be some insight into the reasons for promoting such eternal recurrence and the mechanisms by which it is maintained. Perhaps it is asking too much for a small revolutionary collective in a proletarian Facility to be able to provide this insight, but that would be another point to suggest that the selection of POV might not have been optimal.

Much has been written about how the novel speaks to contemporary American anxieties about the potential decline of U.S. power and the rise of China. There are tantalizing--too tantalizing--hints of how this played out in the history of the novel's fictional universe. (One wonders, for example, why China--a civilization that has been known by the same name for roughly 2000 years--becomes "New China". What is "new" about it?) As this review in The New Inquiry points out, however, much of the true, day-to-day anxiety of all three strata centers around health care--for reasons that should be dismally obvious to anyone paying attention to U.S. politics and society over the last two decades. More intriguing perhaps is the continual anxiety over food, which is likewise of the moment, though for reasons that would require a separate essay, if not an entire book, to explore.

1 comment:

  1. First, thanks for putting this up to allow for further discourse beyond 140. I don't do much writing these days outside of those constraints, so this might be a good exercise (or not).

    I am on the same page as you regarding there being nothing "outstanding either as literary technique or social insight." As I commented to you elsewhere, what I ended up thinking most about during and after reading this book were the ways the characters and plot could have made more significant impressions on me. Sure, this is ego-centric, but I was struck by how little I was affected by Lee's social and/or political insight. It could be that I'm being unfair here - the reviews of the book that I read prior to reading the book itself perhaps over-hyped this aspect and built up my expectations for Lee's critique of or insight into American (U.S.) apprehension of the rise of China.

    "...the 'we' of this not a 'we' that I have seen elsewhere in fiction, though it is familiar to me from politics. Should I have recognized it sooner? Perhaps. Should Lee have clued the reader in earlier? Perhaps." I disagree. I'm not a writer, much less a fiction writer and am more or less unaware of any literary devices that I employ with regularity, but I found no confusion here. I think it was apparent from fairly early on that the 'we' was some sub-section of B-Mor's collective thought.

    What bothered me about the 'we' was not Lee's decision to use it or its efficacy as a literary technique. An almost-always annoying habit of mine (no, not alliteration) is quickly finding and latching onto inconsistencies in arguments. (Annoying to me because I can't focus on anything else that might be happening in the story or argument; annoying to others because I can't keep my mouth shut.) At one or more places B-Mor's inhabitants lament the ever-dwindling access to healthcare, only to about-face and state that readily available healthcare was one of the great benefits of residency within the Facilities. Was this a slip by Lee? Or was this placed intentionally to demonstrate the cognitive dissonance of the 'we' and/or the readers? This wasn't the only instance of the narrator exhibiting inconsistency, but to recall others would require a second reading, which I'm not gonna do.

    Mostly, I found the characters, all of them, to be one-dimensional, to the point of being unbelievably cartoonish. I can expound on this with examples if desired, but as a general critique, I just plain old didn't buy it. Unfortunately, this colored the story itself and the author's social commentary for me. Were the socio-economic strata of the fictional universe painted with the same broad strokes as the characters? I think so and I think Lee's take on U.S. vs. China suffered due to it.