Mark my words. Stephen Marche will be enormous, one of the greats of English language literature, if his second book, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, is any indication. This is is an excellent book. Well conceived and well executed, this is a book the kind of which is rarely encountered. It is a book of fictions that is itself a larger fiction that touches upon many interesting and necessary issues. Before I lose myself in the alleys of my mind, let me tell you: I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is doubtless among the best books I’ve read during the past months, and Stephen Marche may well be becoming one of my favorite living writers, if he can sustain this quality in his future work as well. This book has many ancestors but perhaps none so obvious as Borges and the divine Nabokov, author of a book that is quite similar to Marche’s masterpiece, in several regards: Ada, or Ardor. It is also heavily informed by theory, especially poststructural and postcolonial philosophy. Marche quotes luminaries of the fields in question such as Homi K. Bhabha or Jacques Derrida, but the work is never bogged down by these references and I will try to steer clear of Derrida and Bhabha in this review as well.
“Shining at the Bottom of the Sea” has a lot to say but it does it in a light and enjoyable manner. The fat sweaty man of theory that so often rolls upon the unsuspecting reader in books concerned with postcolonial issues, is luckily completely absent here, although the basic premise and structure suggests elsewhere. The book claims to be an anthology of writers from a former British colony: Sanjania, a Caribbean island. It is completely fictional, as is everyone of the 21 (unless I miscounted) Sanjanian writers included in the Anthology. Stephen Marche pretends to be merely the editor of the volume, who provides an informative preface and a glossary of the writers included in the anthology. The anthology contains Marche’s preface, an introduction by Leonard King, the most famous living Sanjanian writer, three sections of stories and one section of literary criticism by Sanjanian critics and others (including a letter by Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos). The scholarly parts of the anthology are (formally speaking) perfectly annotated and bibliographed, most references, of course, being completely bogus.
There is a caveat here: this is a careful book that does not sweep up the reader in a ravishing feat of storytelling, although Marche certainly would have the chops to pull this off. No, many stories here not terribly engaging nor are they supposed to be: most stories take less up less than ten pages, and the reader is not allowed to settle into them before he is thrown out again by the scruff of his neck. Some stories we are sad to leave, sad stories about love and death, pride and humiliationsome, I’m sorry to say, just pass us by. It’s a credit to Marche’s powers as a writer that we don’t feel this as a loss, it all adds up the big picture. Because this is, after all, what the pattern of stories is about. The stories manage to convincingly recreate a whole culture, the culture of a fictitious country, no less. With the very first story, the very moment Marche steps up to the plate, a swashbuckling history called “The Destruction of Marlyebone, the Private King” by a “F.R. Fisher”, we are captured by Sanjania. This story is three pages long but it packs the punch of a dozen more pages at least.
This story demonstrates many of the strengths of the whole collection. It never descends into low trickery, it does not fiddle with orthography or funny accents. There is a fine line between representing a voice and slipping into racism, and funny orthography is frequently amusing, but not necessarily evocative, certainly not in and of itself. Marche avails himself of an English that is predominantly modern, even in these early stories, supposedly written at the beginning of the 20th century (we’ll return to this in a moment), but he puts a peculiar spin on it, creating a tone that is all his own and that, after a few stories, we will recognize as “Sanjanian”. There are small tweaks on the syntax, but the larger part of the tone is carried by composites such as “oceanshrouded”. Marche fits these words snugly into the fabric of the stories, they never feel odd or like curios, instead we as readers accept that this choice of words is part of the rhythm of Sanjania. Marche’s success works on two levels, this one, the immediately pleasuring power of his writing is one of it.
The other level is cerebral. There is, as would be expected of a project like this, a double bottom to it all. This book is so carefully, intelligently, yes, slyly, constructed it provides hours of cerebral entertainment, even before we come to the “criticism” section. After all, in the first third of the stories, we have yarns that read like 17th century stories, or 19th century Romantic recreations. From the biographical notes, however, provided for each writer, we learn that they, as previously mentioned, are contemporaries of modernism. The style is clearly anachronistic, even within the fictional framework, Mr. “F.R. Fisher” undoubtedly intended it as a stylistic throwback. It’s propaganda, reaching back to one’s cultural roots to strengthen one’s cultural identity against the colonizer, in this case, the “Britishers” as they are often referred to in this book. A second detail that most will immediately remark upon is the very name of the island, since it refers both to the largest and most well known British colony (India) and to the odyssey of the Zoroastrians who fled what is know today as Iran and trekked all over Asia until they settled in India, where they are known today as Parsi.
This kind of cultural fluidity with a strong inner core that travels well (see Clifford and others) works as well for Sanjania. Both culture, that is, cultural travel and identity, as well as geography, literal and metaphorical, play an important role. In a central story, “Flotsam and Jetsam”, a bookseller expounds upon his theory that Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was written by a Sanjanian and is set in Sanjania. Travelers, i.e. people, ideas and books, are just so much flotsam and jetsam, thrown into the river of time in distress, with all the stories expressing a yearning for the time when the shipwrecks of old Sanjanian culture sailed under full sails (yes, with all the problematic issues associated with that). Again, not to be too repetitive, but the very fact that I can write this attests to Marche’s evocative capabilities, evoking a culture that does not even exist, and doing it in a light and readable manner to boot.
All of this raises numerous questions about culture and colonialism, not least because Marche’s method works from an English core, a colonial norm, everything here reaffirms the strength of the culture of the colonialist, and displays the maze one is sent to when one seeks out one’s own cultures central ideas with the tools provided by the colonialist. It also shows to what extent we’ve all become cultural colonialists, to what extent we’ve become readers who have, theory be damned, accepted certain framings of the story. Marche’s book does a merry jig in our frames, toys with them, by constructing a world without representing an actual world, solely with the constructs we use. He is a jester, laughing at us: this book does not evoke a world in the sense of representing it, it just taps our convention of how a world is to be evoked, read, (re)presented. Marche does not hit us over the head with these ideas, he lets us realize them, as we glide through a sea of stories, flotsam, all of us. This is a very good book. Read it.