This Korean-American Author Just Wrote the Great American Novel
Great American Readers, may I have your attention please? If you haven't yet heard of Chang-rae Lee, there'll be no escaping his name now.
Lee has just published his fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea, a dystopian story of a post-climate change and post-racial America, and he is finally getting the attention he deserves. In fact, he's just written a novel so sensitive to the plight of Asian Americans in America that it may well come to be the Great Asian American novel.
On Such a Full Sea has won Lee the coveted front page of the New York Times Book Review and prompted this reviewer from the Los Angeles Times to ask: "Who is a greater novelist than Chang-rae Lee today?" To top it off, the book not only kicks off the 2014 publishing season as one of the first and most highly anticipated books of the year, but as the first-ever book with a 3-D printed book cover. The limited special edition sells for $150 a pop. (You can also purchase a regular copy for normal prices.)
So what makes Lee so great?
America is in the mood for dystopia. Last June, sales of George Orwell's classic Big Brother tale, 1984, jumped 10,000% after Edward Snowden's National Security Agency (NSA) leaks. Like 1984, Lee's dystopic vision captures a great preoccupation in the current national dialogue: the extreme inequality of our economic system.
Great dystopian literature pinpoints and exacerbates the very real malaises of the present society, and that is what Lee has done.
His future America is separated into three totally distinct classes — Charters, facility laborers, and "open counties" residents — that are as physically isolated from each other as they are socio-economically. Charters live in perfect, germ-free, and luxurious suburbs, while residents of the open counties must find a way to survive in squalid wilderness where they constantly fear for their lives. While Lee's vision of the open counties is stark and unforgiving, as one reviewer notes, "It's simply what our own poor, rural areas would become if the government turned its back forever."
Courtesy A Syn.
Great dystopian literature pinpoints and exacerbates the very real malaises of the present society, and that is what Lee has done. That itself is commendable. But in the process of writing this futuristic thriller, he has also managed to capture the essential conflict of the Asian American immigrant — a feat nothing short of miraculous.
"It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore," goes the chilling opening line. Lee continues: "Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone." In Lee's America, what matters is not where you're from but where you are right now — origins and their attendant identities mean nothing. America has become disturbingly post-racial: the most immediately identifying (and the most damning) feature of any person in this world is their class.
Immigration and migration (especially as the result of climate change) will soon be the inevitable story of too many people.
Lee's heroine is facility worker Fan, a resident of B-Mor (formerly known as Baltimore) and a descendant of one of the first "settlers" who fled the economic destruction of their factory town in "New China." In search of her disappeared lover and father of her unborn child, 16-year-old Fan leaves the safe haven of her walled community for the open counties, a reckless choice that rocks the once-stable value system of B-Mor.
Courtesy Paul Sableman.
By weaving the story of immigrants into the story of America's dystopian future, Lee articulates an undeniable trend in the contemporary world: that immigration and migration (especially as the result of climate change) will soon be the inevitable story of too many people.
And the major conflict of the novel will already be familiar to Asian American immigrants — it is the struggle between the community and the individual. B-Mor and Fan's value system revolves around the community, "designed ultimately to smooth our unitary workings," while Charters "are always striving to be exquisite microcosms ... expert Connoisseurs of Me." In this America, the community-minded are portrayed as homogeneous and middle class, while the individualistic are wealthy and powerful; but ultimately both value systems are revealed to be intrinsically flawed.
Courtesy Riverhead Hardcover.
Charter individuality turns out to be a cruel selfishness that betrays and oppresses even as it aims to love. Many reviewers have remarked on the disquieting and virtuosic effects of Lee's first-person plural narrator, but not many have pointed out that the placement of the collective voice within a society and economy that awards blind individualism is actually the classic element of the Asian-American immigrant struggle.
In an interview with The New York Times, Lee notes that being an immigrant made him particularly attuned to the workings of class in America. And indeed the immigrant story here serves as a spectacular frame for elucidating the horrific implications of our current national debate about class and economic inequality.
In his previous novels, Lee has already proved himself as a great literary voice for Asian Americans everywhere. His debut novel, Native Speaker, won him instant literary acclaim and was even considered for the 2002 New York City campaign, One City One Book. His second, A Gesture Life, was a haunting Great Gatsby tale for the Asian American immigrant, and is arguably The Great Asian American Novel. The Surrendered was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
Lee is a literary chameleon. A Korean American himself, he has written about Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, native Koreans, and now Chinese Americans of a future world. But by writing across immigrant identities, Lee does not only show off his literary chops: He asserts immigrant America as the America.
Courtesy Riverhead Press.
This is not the first or even most incisive dystopian vision of America. But it is the first in which the role of Asian Americans is crucial, the first in which betrayal — especially of one's own history and family and past — moves its talons over the immigrant story. By writing American dystopia with Chinese-American protagonists, Lee asserts not only that Asian immigrants have been a part of the history and making of America (an oft told immigrant narrative), but also that they have a stake in the future of America.
On Such a Full Sea is an essentially American story, a story that so perfectly captures the contradictions, anxieties, and ultimately, the hopes of America, that there is no other name for it but a Great American Novel.
On Such a Full Sea comes out today. Listen to an excerpt of the novel here.