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A dystopian Baltimore seen as a “labor colony”

On Such A Full Sea

By Chang-Rae Lee

Riverhead Books

368 pages, $27.95

By Michael D. Langan


“…everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone.” – Chang Rae Lee

The world is changing; the tide is rising – with plenty of flotsam in it – perhaps faster than we know.

Chang-Rae Lee, a South Korea-born writer who came to America at age 3, introduces us to a dystopian world – undesirable and frightening - right here in what used to be Baltimore.

Lee uses the old TV program “Law and Order” formula for what he hopes will be success: Take the headlines from the daily news and, changing little, write a novel mirroring society’s too-regular horrors.

In “On Such A Full Sea,” Baltimore is renamed “B-Mor”, “a repurposed, high-walled, self-contained labor colony.” Turn back to the print world for a moment. Is this true? In fact, we are told that Baltimore officials are “stabilizing the neighborhoods” by bulldozing them, according to a recent front-page story in the New York Times.

The novel’s title, “On Such A Full Sea,” is a phrase, you’ll remember, borrowed from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

We, at the height, are ready to decline.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea we are now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

So what’s the larger import of “On Such A Full Sea?” It is about America’s decline. Lately, and with reason, thoughtful commentators have said America has not “taken the current when it serves” and as a result, “have lost our ventures,” listing “In the shadows of a golden age.”

Recently, Thomas L. Friedman, three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, makes that same charge. He writes about “The Way We Were” in the New York Times, saying “The worst thing a country … can do” is to run scared “… and we’re doing it because one of our two parties has been taken over by angry radicals and barking fools and the old leadership is running scared …. thus does a great country with so much potential, slowly become ungreat.”

Add to these observations similar commentary by Dave Eggers in his new novel, “The Circle.” He writes about a Google-like company and campus that appears to be an enlightened and transparent Facebook-like company. It’s the place where the “best people” work and to hell with the rest.

So it seems that more than a few seminal thinkers are noticing the fading light of America’s democracy beginning to sink below the horizon.

Enter superior “techies” who are trying to figure out how to not share their spoils and escape from the rest of us. Case in point: According to a recent Wall Street Journal piece, a “brilliant young entrepreneur named Balaji Srinivasan” took the stage to argue for Silicon Valley’s “Ultimate Exit,” an “opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”

That way, he explained, tech millionaires could avoid what they consider the siege from the U.S. government, Wall Street and Hollywood who are trying to “usurp their cultural and economic power.”

Lee’s publisher describes the desecration and final humiliation of the United States in “On Such A Full Sea” this way: “In a long-declining America, abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as secure, self-contained labor settlements.

Here, communities of contented workers – descendants of those brought over en masse from China many years earlier – devote their lives to the cultivation of pristine produce and seafood for the wealthy residents of the elite walled villages that lie outside. In return for their contributions, the workers are protected from the violence and anarchic quasi-states that exist elsewhere.”

Good thing they left China years ago. Again, reality tops fiction: things in the old country are getting worse. A headline from the BBC News a short time ago: “Lung cancer cases soar in Beijing.” Millions of Chinese have been routed from the countryside and housed in high rises like sardines. There aren’t many jobs and the young are unemployed.

If this is a “great leap forward,” take one backward baby step.

So here’s the question for the reader: Is “On Such A Full Sea” a good novel or a piece of debris floated to the top, based upon the wreckage of lives observed elsewhere?

My view: The novel is a thoughtful piece of work that takes advantage of the full force of the world as a perilous place. “On Such A Full Sea” tells the story of a young girl, a fish-tank worker named Fan, and her boyfriend, Reg, who “disappear” from B-Mor. Read “escaped”, because their attitudes didn’t comport with officialdom’s strait-jacketed program of work and play for equivalent “inmates.”

People like Fan have free will. There are times when she and Reg feel alone in the open counties beyond B-Mor’s bounded wealth. As the author relates about them, “We pack too heavy for what we hope we’ll use, and too light of what we must. We thus go forth misladen, ill equipped for the dawn”; a nice summing up of their circumstances.

The novel by Lee, who teaches writing at Princeton University and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his earlier novel, “The Surrendered”, is a smidge of dark Dickens and “Brave New World,” the 1931 novel by Aldous Huxley that details operant conditioning, combined.

“On Such A Full Sea’s” main value is that it’s an acute alert that things are falling apart.

Regrettably, we hardly need a warning with bulldozers crunching concrete, repurposing our environment, around us.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of fiction.

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