Stephen Marche

In his review of Stephen Marche's Shining at the Bottom of the Sea (Riverhead Books), Brian Evenson asserts that too many of the selections in the fictionalized anthology that gives this book its form have "too few of the satisfactions we’ve come to expect from fiction" (Bookforum)

On the one hand, Marche would probably be disappointed that this reviewer at least found his book to some degree unsatisfying, but on the other, that this dissatisfaction comes from finding too few of the pleasures "we've come to expect from fiction" doesn't necessarily mean the book has failed. Indeed, if Shining at the Bottom of the Sea provoked the reader into reflecting on the "satisfactions" fiction ought to provide, it probably could be called successful in fulfilling one of the implicit goals of experimental fiction: to remind readers there is no one form fiction has to take, that what is "expected" from fiction isn't necessarily what it always needs to provide.

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is, it seems to me, an experimental novel in the purest sense of the term. It bypasses almost entirely the conventional elements of the novel--plot, character, point of view--and offers in their place an historical narrative of sorts that unfolds between the lines of the anthologized documents substituting for the "expected" narrative of incident, character revelation, etc. Edited by "Stephan Marche," the documents are primarily a selection of short fictions representing the literary heritage of "Sanjania," a fictional North Atlantic island whose original inhabitants were brought there on Spanish slave ships but which came to be a British colony. The stories are arranged chronologically, thus giving us both a survey of Sanjanian literary history and an exploration of Sanjanian history and culture more broadly (at least as the latter can be inferred through the stories--not necessarily a straightforward process, since they are, after all, fictions and not historical narratives per se.) There is also a section at the end of the volume devoted to "Criticism," which is less literary criticism in the strict sense than a series of nonfiction pieces, including an interview with a living Sanjanian writer, that act to tie together the stories by focusing on important themes and historical motifs. One of the conventional elements of fiction that remains in effect is setting, and it is the way in which Sanjania itself acts as the focus of attention, becomes a kind of character in itself, that leads me to call Shining at the Bottom of the Sea a novel. It's a novel that asks us to expand existing definitions of what a novel might be.

Since this is literally a text highlighting writing as writing, it would have to be categorized as "metafiction," but one of the accomplishments of this book is the way in which it demonstrates how metafiction can be not a symptom of literary narcissism but a perfectly serviceable means to other literary ends. In this case, a text about writing also turns out to be a text about something else, a something else that probably couldn't be evoked in some other manner without sacrificing its unity of effect and a certain kind of efficiency. A sprawling saga about the colonial and post-colonial history of Sanjania is not the sort of thing I would rush to read, but the metafictional ingenuity of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea does appeal; in fact, I am more likely to note the postcoloniast themes inherent in the story of Sanjania as they emerge through the juxtapositions of story and the gradual accumulations of reference than through the more obvious effects of "drama." In my view, readers are more likely to return to a text like Shining at the Bottom of the Sea to try to piece together even more coherently the underlying story of Sanjania and Western colonialism, to align the selections that make up this faux-anthology into an even more comprehensible whole. It's a novel that invites re-reading in a way more conventional narratives do not.

Which does not mean that Evenson is entirely incorrect in suggesting that not all of the individual entries in Marche's anthology-as-novel are equally interesting. Some make for better reading than others. Some play a stronger role in depicting the history of Sanjania than others. In his review of the book at the Toronto Star, Philip Marchand calls it a "pastiche" and comments that in such a work "The reader's assumption is always that the author of a poem or story is doing his best to make it a good poem or story – but this assumption falters when the story or poem is put inside of quotation marks, as it were," asking further: "If the reader finds the story or poem dull, is it because the (real) author has failed or because the reader has missed some part of the joke?" I'm not sure it's necessary we think the author was "doing his best" to make each selection an equally "good poem or story." The contents of the anthology need to reflect the development of Sanjanian literature, but this doesn't mean every story has to be "good" in some universally acceptable sense of the term. It isn't a "joke" if the writer is trying to evoke a particular style that doesn't exactly fulfill expectations of "good" writing. It's possible to achieve "good" writing," to write well, by summoning up a prose style with its own limitations, even that is deliberately wretched (see many of the novels of Gilbert Sorrentino).

Still, some readers might find parts of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea slow-going, not necessarily because they're inattentive readers but because of hazards inherent to the kind of work this is. It may be that Marche has pulled this experiment off about as well as it can be done, or someone inspired by Marche's example might try something similar and avoid its longueurs. (And I don't want to exaggerate their effect. Most of the conjured-up stories are well-done, and the occasional dense patch doesn't obscure the overall realization of the novel's design.) But I would hope that all readers would finally judge it using criteria that are fair to the sort of novel it is rather than those appropriate to other novels using conventions "we’ve come to expect from fiction" that this novel rejects.


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