You are not what you think you are

by Ian Kennedy

Here are two versions of what you are:

  1. A bundle of organs, blood, fluids, microorganisms, proteins, and minerals formed based on evolutionarily determined DNA.
  2. A node in a community network of knowings, sayings, and doings which are shared, indeed formed with, other nodes.

A savvy reader will quickly note that these two types of human being, one physical and the other social, are not mutually exclusive. And this theme-how we, as bodies, and we, as social processes, are aligned-is a central theme of Chang-rae Lee’s novel On Such a Full Sea. 

Lee gives the novel a home base in a community that strongly emphasizes the social, but sends his protagonist, Fan, on a journey that, as news of it reaches back to that community, adjusts the focus. “And that’s one of the funny things about Fan, as we think about her now, which is that when it mattered most she was an essentially physical being, rather than some ornate bundle of notions, wishes, dreams.” The form of this sentence leaves it unclear if that essential physicality is something true about Fan, or something universal, as if perhaps, Fan transcended into the physical.

For it is not the case that feelings don’t matter. It is not enough to realize our physicality, we must, in Lee’s words “embody what we feel and know.” Fan, then, is a rare person who is able to manifest what she feels and knows in her being. Those feelings and knowings, though will take us back to the social. They aren’t, after all, entirely ours.

Despite the common conception of people as choice-makers Lee casts his people as mostly in thrall to social influence, while beings like Fan, and often-while they are with her-the people who help her, are quite rare. In the world of On Such a Full Sea, society is trifurcated, both socially and spatially. Fan’s world is a protected factory town called B-mor, safe but with little to indulge in. Outside are the counties, impoverished and dangerous. The rich and powerful live in gated communities called Charters. Lee shows submitting to social trends varies only by form between these communities.

B-mor is deeply and self-conciously communitarian, but at first glance the anything-goes life in the counties and the individualistic lives of the charters would be less dominated by social forces. Lee cleverly shows us otherwise. Violence rules outside walled settlements, but success is impossible individually: communities that persist do so because of the strength of social bonds like family, loyalty, and shared debts. The lives of charters are the most determined by social ideas of success, driven by pressures which begin in youth and guide action throughout life. Fan’s older brother, who was moved into a Charter as a young man, exemplifies this as the change renders him unrecognizable, even to himself.

It that world, like in our own, it seems like choices are everywhere. Lee, however, reminds us of our latent connections. We can go anywhere and buy anything, making a “map marked with private routings and preferred habitual destinations, and go by a legend of our own. Yet it turns out you can overlay them and see a most amazing correspondence; what you believed were very personal contours aligning not exactly but enough that while our via posts may diverge, our endings do not.”

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