Sep 5, 2007

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea - book review

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
by Stephen Marche
Viking Canada, 256 pages, $32.00

Every author, in some respect, creates unique worlds in their novels. Whether it be a wholly fictitious planet, a slanted version of our own reality, or merely the kindly neighbours next door, the sphere of existence on display within the pages only subsists as an artificial construct, subject to the whims of its creator.

It’s a fair bet, however, that not many authors have gone to the lengths Stephen Marche has in idiosyncratic world-building.

The Canadian author’s second novel, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, documents the Island of Sanjania, “an invisible dot in the middle of the North Atlantic.” Sanjanians, in the words of one of its leading writers, “are perhaps the most literary people on earth…bookstalls are as common as fruit stands…on Sanjair flights the stewards push small carts of books down the aisle after the beverages and pretzels.”

Yet rather than simply set a story in this fictional country, Marche sets himself the challenge of anthologizing the many varied works of fiction in Sanjania’s history, exploring the country’s past through its pamphlets, short stories, and novels. Marche, in his role as editor, is perplexed that Sanjanian writing is essentially ignored in the world, especially as authors such as George Orwell praise Sanjanian pamphlets as “[reminding] me of a childhood I never had.”

In lesser hands, such a notion could easily lead to cheekiness, a nudge-nudge ‘aren’t I clever’ showiness that showcases the author’s vanity in his own talents rather than serve the central conceit of such an endeavour. Even the slightest wink at the absurdity of the scenario could destroy its fragile nature.

Luckily, as fans of his first novel Raymond and Hannah are aware, Marche is a spectacularly precise writer, with nary a word wasted or phrase unexamined. His meticulousness of language and rhythm carry his voices easily throughout the stories, from the distinct local patois of the early pamphleteers, through to the later “clean school” of writing ostensibly introduced by Blessed Shirley.

Indeed, such is Marche’s accomplishment that it becomes well nigh impossible to critique Shining at the Bottom of the Sea as anything less than a factual anthology. From Cato Dekkerman’s charming “A Wedding in Restitution” to Caesar Hill’s wonderful “Flotsam and Jetsam,” it becomes an exercise in futility to distinguish Marche the Canadian author from Marche the fictional compiler of material.

Marche’s disparities of tone and style, his inclusion of footnotes and author biographies, his traversing of the Sanjanian cultural landscape though fictional heroes such as fallen woman Pigeon Blackhat and aged crimesolver Professor Saintfrancis; all combine into such a complete literary deconstruction of a land and its people that a reader not in on the joke would be forgiven for looking into making travel arrangements to Sanjania.

In a sense, by skirting the usual narrative trappings of the novel, Marche, in revealing “a secret compartment of the sea,” has summarily reinvented them. Impossible to categorize, impressive in execution, always enthralling, Shining at the Bottom of Sea is a joy, and a celebration of all that is possible in literature.

Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press, August 26, 2007.


Matt Staggs said...

Alright - I've been thinking of picking this one up. You've sold me on it.

John Mutford said...

At first I was thinking that it sounded like a very fun read (and the booklove- well, what reader can't get behind that?) but then, just as I started to fear it was going into Terry Pratchett territory (No, I'm not a fan), you eased my fears- it's not cheeky.

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