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Future Days

Chang-Rae Lee's 'On Such a Full Sea' reflects modern society as futuristic dystopia

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WHAT DREAMS MAY COME Chang-Rae Lee appears as part of Copperfield's 'Lit Nights' series. - DAVID BURNETT
  • David Burnett
  • WHAT DREAMS MAY COME Chang-Rae Lee appears as part of Copperfield's 'Lit Nights' series.

Chang-Rae Lee's latest novel may take place sometime in the future, in a world slightly more sinister than the world we inhabit now, but, bucking the Zeitgeist, there aren't any zombies coming for dinner in On Such a Full Sea. Instead, the latest book by the Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of The New Yorker's "20 Writers for the 21st century" has given us an aching, somber and beautifully written meditation on community, identity, class and love—with just a hint of cannibalism.

Similar to Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, Lee's story centers around a protagonist who goes on a journey through a changed world in which the social norms and rules no longer apply, and where the human capacity for violence has run amok. Chang-Rae Lee appears at Copperfield's Petaluma on Jan. 11.

On Such a Full Sea follows the journey of Fan, a 16-year-old resident of B-Mor who leaves her orderly and sheltered community for the "open counties," where basic needs are met but not much else. It's a hero's journey through a chillingly prescient future world; Fan's departure to search for her disappeared boyfriend Reg triggers hairline cracks in B-Mor's complacent society, revealing how thin the line between prosperity and dissolution can be. Told by a collective narrator, the "we" of B-Mor, the story digs into the nuances of Fan's journey and the ways her decision inspires those she left behind.

B-Mor is a walled community, built over the ruins of what was "once known as Baltimore," which functions as a hive for a passive worker society of descendants of a people who were transported over from Xixu City in China years before—pushed out of their home after the water was fouled by farms, factories, power plants and mining operations into something beyond "all methods of treatment."

B-Mor serves as one layer of a three-pronged society segregated by class status, with "open counties" residents at the bottom and the "Charters," an exalted, wealthy, pampered and hypercompetitive society, at the top. (For further illustration, just look at the lifestyles of any of the current 1%.)

Reading Lee's book brings to mind an anthropological study I was assigned to read in college. "Body Ritual of the Nacirema" details the odd and ridiculous behaviors of a cultural tribe that seems far removed from our own. It's only at the end that you realize Nacirema is "American" spelled backwards.

Some of the behaviors of the B-Mor people seem strange, until the reader realizes that many of these behaviors and perversities are already common to the Western experience. A mindless consumption of media; the desire for highly curated temperature- and sound-modulated microenvironments (shopping centers, strip malls, department stores), where consumption is indulged with languid impassivity; sex trafficking; mass shootings of innocents—the list goes on.

Set in the future, Lee's new book acts as a warning and a parable for what we might be, could be and already are, and the flashes of love, friendship, community and small heroic acts that we all need to employ to survive in a world gone mad.

Chang-Rae Lee appears Saturday, Jan. 11, at Copperfield's Books. 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 7pm. 707.762.0563.

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