The Chang-rae Lee Version of Dystopia

This is from the review of On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee’s new novel.  The review appeared in the January 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.  The reviewer was Joanna Biggs.

“More and more we can see that the question is not whether we are ‘individuals,’ Chang-rae Lee writes in On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead), his new, dystopian novel.  “The question, then, is whether being an ‘individual’ makes a difference anymore.”  It seems doubtful, in Lee’s somber future.  Afflicted by swine- and bird-flue epidemics, and a profound change in the climate, America, now known simply as the Association, has split into three separate social groups.  At the top sit the Charters, a small professional class that has controlled the country’s remaining resources and withdrawn into gated villages.  Catering their dinner parties and keeping their cars perpetually waxed are the ‘service people,’ who live in the land beyond, known as the counties.  ‘You better have it while you have it’ is the motto of the bartering, hardscrabble life there.”

District 12, anyone?  The twist is that the oppressed classes are “workers whose ancestors arrived from New China a hundred years earlier.”

Biggs then cites a list of dystopian narratives (which fortunately or unfortunately do not include anything YA), starting with “the math genius D-503, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, who begins by designing the spaceship INTEGRAL . . .  to the fireman Guy Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 who starts out as a kerosene-wielding book burner and ends up harboring what may be the last copy of the Bible,” to Winston Smith, the “mid-ranking employee” of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984.

Self has read most of Chang-rae Lee’s novels.  She’s read Native Speaker, Aloft, and A Gesture Life.  Of all his novels that self has read to date, her favorite is still A Gesture Life.  Harrowing.  She’ll never forget it.

What she likes most about Lee’s writing is the quietness of the voice.  The restraint masks sheer agony.  All his main characters are tightly wound but restrained, almost to the point of lunacy.  Feelings are to be distrusted.  They are acknowledged only under great peril.  Which makes him sound, on the surface, like Kazuo Ishiguro.  But self finds Chang-rae Lee’s characters, almost all of them, to be deeply emotional and passionate individuals.  If they do harm, it is mostly to themselves.

She does have a copy of On Such a Full Sea, signed by the author himself after a reading he gave in Berkeley.  Self is sorely tempted to tote it along to Ireland, but it’s hardback.  And self has sworn she’s not going to burden herself with more than a handful of books this time.  The fee for mailing the books back home will be exorbitant, if what she paid after Hawthornden is any indication.  Oh what to do, what to do!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

2 Comments

  1. April 1, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Thank you for this. Do you like Chang Rae Lee’s dystopian better than the Hunger Games world? Would like to know this as I am trying to write something like that too. I do believe it will become Chimerica soon, as Nial Fergusson predicts.
    Kyi

    • April 2, 2014 at 12:43 am

      I find I can relate more to the heroine in Hunger Games than to the heroine in Chang-rae Lee’s; Lee’s has a very still affect. Or maybe I’m just in the mood for more action right now . . .


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