November 15, 2007

Book review: "Shining at the Bottom of the Sea," by Stephen Marche

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Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
By Stephen Marche
Riverhead Books / ISBN: 98-1-59448-941-9

There is of course a long and proud tradition here in the West of elaborate histories concerning made-up places; take JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, as perhaps the most famous example of all. But now imagine that the made-up land in question is designed deliberately to mix with our real world, geography and history -- for example, that your particular made-up land is supposed to be a part of the British Commonwealth, just a part that doesn't actually exist in the real world, originally part of the British Empire in the same way that Bermuda, Jamaica and New Zealand became members of the Empire and then Commonwealth too. Imagine an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, one that became crucial in the 1600s for British sailors making their way from the Continent to America, and has been part of British history ever since; a place where the citizens themselves are the same bronze natives like you find in the British Caribbean, but who have cultivated a culture at their island almost exactly like Ireland's craggy fishing coast, complete with Victorian lighthouses and big burly wool sweaters.

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, by Stephen Marche

Picture that, ladies and gentlemen, and you're starting to correctly picture the latest mindblowing novel by the multi-talented writer Stephen Marche, the made-up literary anthology Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, which purportedly is both a folk history and a survey of arts concerning the exact kind of fictional North Atlantic British colony and later independent nation just mentioned. Known as "Sanjan Island" during its colonial period and "Sanjania" after independence, it is a place that shares many traits of other former UK colonies but that combines these traits in odd and unique ways; a remote island known mostly as a trading and military port for far-flung sailors, but more like Iceland or Greenland in makeup than the British ports of the South Seas, although with still as glorious and complex a history concerning their British overlords as any equatorial paradise.

In fact, turns out that there's a unique detail to Sanjania's history as well, one that makes it stand out among all of the Commonwealth nations; that for some strange reason that's still being debated by sociology professors to this day, back in the 1800s so-called "penny dreadful" publications shipped in from England became a much bigger hit among Sanjanians than among other British colonists, making Sanjania itself easily the most literate and intelligent of all the former Imperial lands. Chalk part of this up, Marche argues in the fake historical introduction (crucial for understanding exactly what the hell is going on in this initially confusing book) to the nature of this fictional island itself -- that since the interior of Sanjania supposedly consists of a series of rocky mountains, what has instead developed on the island is a 360-degree ring of small, isolated coastal villages. In effect, the terrain kept the majority of Sanjania's citizens cut off from each other (everyone except their coastal next-door neighbors, that is) for the first two centuries of British occupation there; these newfound publications of the Victorian Age, though, including not only the aforementioned dreadfuls but also what we now know as newspapers and magazines, were the first time the island's entire set of inhabitants were able to start thinking of themselves as a unified group of people.

According to Marche's fake introduction, in fact, it is quite easy to track Sanjania's history as a people through its popular writing over the decades; from their lurid ripoffs of Sherlock Holmes and other melodramatic Victorian tales in the late 1800s, to the introduction of Modernism in the early 1900s and a consolidation of all the various village dialects, to the codified language of revolution and self-rule in the 1920s and '30s, to the optimistic poetry of independence in the 1950s, to the crushing reality of a fascist coup and takeover in the '60s and '70s, leading to an entire literary community of exiles by the 1980s (also known as a diaspora), scattered across every corner of the Commonwealth now except for the place they all call home.

And indeed, this is precisely what the contents of this book are; it is Marche writing fake stories from each and every freaking period of Sanjania's fake history, at least one story for each and every one of the literary styles just mentioned, along with such fake supporting documents as the aforementioned historical introduction, as well as a section of fake literary criticism at the end too. Wow! No, wait, let me say that again -- wow, wow, wow! Shining at the Bottom of the Sea turns out to be one of the most inventive books I've read this entire year, in fact, in a year filled with inventive books; there were times when I simply wanted to stand up in public and loudly cheer Marche on, for creating a fictional project that is so endlessly fascinating and smart and layered like it is. Because when you stop and think about it, you realize just how many subjects a person like Marche needs to have a mastery over in order to so convincingly pull off a book like this -- not only a detailed understanding of British Empire/Commonwealth history, but also of third-world islands, the literary arts, the Victorian, Edwardian, and Modern ages, and a lot more. It's one of those fictional projects you can only get from academic lifers with overactive imaginations (much like Tolkien was too, unsurprisingly enough), the kind of book that actively rewards you for being smart and well-read yourself, that actively punishes you for not.

Because really, that's probably the smartest and most interesting thing about this book of all, is something subtle and that you need to know your world history to fully appreciate; that as mentioned, Marche has ultimately combined two cliches from the British Empire/Commonwealth that have never been combined in the real world, of the isolated villagers of color found in the South Atlantic with the whalers, fishermen, and coastal lifestyles of the North Atlantic. Sanjania is a place filled with Caribbean-style superstitions and religious rituals, to cite just one example, but in this case centered around the plankboards and polished brass of a New England or Canadian seafaring town; a place where old-timers make up aborigine-style descriptive terms for everyday objects, but that are centered around the same touchstones of a typical Herman Melville novel ("Godspeak," "hogfilth," "spoonthumb," and a lot more). It is brilliant of Marche to do this, because of the untold amount of inventive literary tricks that can be created from such a pairing of cultures; but unless one already understands both of the cultures being combined, and also understands that such a combined culture cannot actually be found anywhere currently on the real planet, the entire point of loving this book is going to be missed.

In fact, this very subject leads us as well to my biggest criticism of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea; that it is a smartypants book for smartypants readers, something inarguably on the high end of high culture, and that your enjoyment of it will be directly related to your enjoyment of such other dry high-art projects as Russian manifestos, '50s tone-poems and the like. Just take the fact, for example, that the structure of the book itself is modeled after a literary anthology from a PhD-holding academic lifer, and everything that implies -- fake footnotes, a fake bibliography, even fake controversies over fake competing academic theories concerning various obtuse details of this fake island's fake history. Whew! A big part of enjoying Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is in enjoying all the delicate little details on every page -- from watching the slow morphing over a century of the island's traditional sign of politeness (spilling a few drops from a drink you've been offered by a host) to the fake academic analysis of the use of symbolism as contrasted between Sanjanian writers of the pre- and post-war periods. And let's face it, unless you're an intellectual with an academic background, the chances are slim that you're going to find such things entertaining.

But I am an intellectual with an academic background, so I of course loved Shining at the Bottom of the Sea to death; I consider it at this point in fact to be one of the top-ten novels I've now read in 2007, an assessment I'm not expecting to change by the time 2008 rolls around, six weeks from when I'm writing this review. As I too rarely get to say here, a book like this is the entire reason I started CCLaP in the first place; in the hopes of championing ultra-smart, ultra-complex material out there that needs a little more attention paid to it than is currently being done, stuff that very finely treads the line between academic pretension and mass entertainment, between challenging experiment and artsy mess. As with everything else recommended here, the book is not for everyone; if you like the other things I recommend here at the CCLaP site, however, the chances are likely that you will be as blown away by this as I was too.

Out of 10:
Story: 10
Characters: 9.7
Style: 10
Overall: 9.9

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:05 PM, November 15, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |