Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
by Stephen Marche
Reviewed by Rod Smith
Stephen Marche demanded much of Raymond and Hannah's titular characters, and got it. Spectacularly together just six days before fate wrenches them 6,000 miles apart, the couple finds their newly-mismatched paradigms make for lousy long-distance pillow talk: she's immersed in Torah school in Jerusalem, while back in Toronto, he's wrestling with a doctoral dissertation on Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Still, they struggle valiantly to keep their flame afloat, mostly electronically, and with considerable charm.
In his second novel, the Canadian experimentalist -- now living in Brooklyn -- distributes the narrative burden much more evenly, over several hundred years and a few dozen fictitious authors. Ostensibly a literary anthology from the tiny island nation and former British colony Sanjania, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea finds Marche gliding through countless styles and voices (including disgruntled tourist Ernest Hemingway's) in a bravura turn that succeeds even when it falters.
While inventing a country (along with its flora, fauna, stormy history, and impossibly verdant culture) is no mean feat, the book draws much of its luster from Marche's structural gambit. A spurious academic compendium complete with forward, introduction, and footnotes, as well as back-of-book criticism and biographical notes, the book captures all the brightest moments of Sanjania's rich literary tradition, from the dialect-enhanced productions of Sanjan Island's late 19th-century pamphleteers to the deadpan fictions of the former British colony's contemporary avant-garde. Mostly stories about pirates and prostitutes, the former offer much in the way of color, but the latter boast considerably more complexity. With Marcel Henri's trenchant "The Man Friday's Review of Robinson Crusoe" -- a spurious review cast as fiction in a bogus collection -- Marche might well have crafted the most insidiously recursive tale of 2007.
Still, technique and adventurousness are only a fraction of Shining's allure. The novel's scope affords the author ample opportunity to paint with broad, bold strokes, particularly in the sections devoted to the Sanjan independence movement and the brutal dictatorship that follows -- when most of the nation's literary lights are either dead or in exile. But Marche possesses a mighty knack for fashioning deliciously skewed particulars. To wit: While printed on cheap paper, the pamphlets that launch the island's literary adventure are bound in wool. And what writer wouldn't love the likes of pioneering publisher Samuel Taylor, who made himself available 24/7 and paid immediately upon delivery? In less capable hands, Shining's myriad bells and whistles might come off as the trappings of an ungainly postmodernist conceit. Marche writes so gracefully, though, that in only 254 pages, he leaves us thoroughly enchanted.