Not so here; there’s a kind of artful vagueness to the narrative which sometimes works in its favor—as with its judicious reticence, for instance, in revealing crucial details of historical and political context—and sometimes not at all. Crucially, Fan never really emerges from the radiant mist of narration as a clearly defined character, as a figure of any real human complexity or conflict. In the opening pages, the narrative “we” seems to coyly forewarn us of this: “We know much about her daily life but that still leaves a great deal to be determined. She was perhaps brighter than most, certainly less talkative, but otherwise, in terms of character, not terribly distinctive.”
It’s often difficult to tell whether Lee’s use of this narrative approach is a cause or mitigation of Fan’s lack of distinctiveness. The tale unfolds in the distant and slightly glazed fashion of a fairy tale or myth cycle; and just as it is explicitly told in the voice of a particular migrant community, its protagonist is implicitly a representative figure of that community—repeatedly claimed, with a sort of anxious affection, as “our Fan.” But she recedes into that wash of elegiac narration, to the point where it becomes difficult to see her at all—where she becomes simply the subject of a series of events, the outline of a young woman being moved through a landscaped narrative terrain of hazard and deliverance.
Because this is a story about captivity and freedom, Fan’s subordination to the partitioned mechanism of plot is a strange irony. She finds herself in several forms of confinement as her quest progresses; there is always someone by whom she is, in one sense or another, retained. Late in the novel, she is given shelter in the apartment of a young Charter doctor who has helped her escape from a previous captivity. She tells him that she will leave the following morning, and he says that she can do what she likes. “Nobody is your keeper,” he tells her. It seems an odd and poignant thing to say of a character who has recently been through so many captivities, so many forms of being kept, and who is, in the end, so firmly in the custody of narrative.
So Fan is not, in any obvious sense, a heroic figure; only at certain crucial junctures does she bring any real authority or agency to bear on the situations she finds herself in. In the end, Reg seems less like a lost loved one than a MacGuffin, a bare instrument of absence driving the engine of the narrative, keeping Fan moving on, or being moved. But Lee—or his choric narrative—wants us to see a certain kind of antiheroic potency in her stoicism. In the closing pages, there is a moment of valedictory reflection on the ways in which we tend to prepare for a future that never comes, or doesn’t come in the form we expect—on how “we pack too heavy with what we hope we’ll use, and too light of what we must.”
But not so our Fan. She wasn’t a prophetic one, as we know, or always ever ready, nor was she chosen, at last, to lead anyone but herself. For at every turn, whether she bore a full satchel or one slim or nothing at all, she stood resolved, her boldness not one that simply pushed her forward but rather fixed her, solid, on the very spot she found herself [...] Did this make her impervious? Heroic and wise? Not at all. She was as subject to chance and malice as the rest of us. She could only entertain hopes for the future.
Her ability to just be where she is becomes her defining feature as a character. It’s difficult to avoid reading this metafictionally, as Lee’s way of turning Fan’s essential lightness to thematic account. This, after all, would be a thin conception of what a literary character is, or is for: a human figure in a series of locations, subject to chance and malice.
And that, in the end, is the most unsettling aspect of Lee’s imagined future—the way in which he dramatizes it through the travails of a figure of such limited agency, and such little anger. (In this sense, the recent novel which On Such a Full Sea most insistently recalls is Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece Never Let Me Go.) Fan is not fighting the system; she seems, in fact, scarcely aware that there is such a thing as a system to be fought. The world in which she exists is a pretty grim place, and her position within it—the very spot on which she finds herself—seems the result of very real and abiding injustice. (There’s a plot we never see here, in other words—a larger kind of plot in which the narrative takes place, and which seems to foreclose against heroic possibilities.) But her struggle, such as it is, is only tangentially concerned with that injustice; she’s really just trying to get her boyfriend back, to live a reasonable life in a world she had no hand in shaping and has little power to change. And so if Fan, our Fan, is a sort of emissary of the “we” that narrates, she is also slyly, glancingly, a reflection of the “we” that reads.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. Riverhead.