Shining at the Bottom of the Sea

SHINING AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA
By Stephen Marche

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a concept book and author Stephen Marche’s second title (after the 2005 novel Raymond and Hannah), is an anthology of Sanjanian writing, Sanjania being an imaginary island and former British colony that is “little more than an invisible dot in the middle of the North Atlantic.” Marche, then, acts as the anthology’s “editor,” as well as the author of a critical introduction that places the work in context.

Entering into the premise, one is struck by how limited a selection is being presented. No plays, poetry, or excerpts from novels are included. What we get is a chronological sampling of short fiction. The pieces are arranged to show the evolution of the Sanjanian short story, from early pamphlets and the work of “fictioneers,” through the development of a native realist tradition, and into a post-colonial literature that is internationally recognized (though just barely). The anthology ends with a selection of critical perspectives and biographical notes.

The book gets off to a strong start with a group of early stories written in a kind of loopy Pitkern distinguished by its vivid imagery and musical homemade compounds. As Sanjanian literature matures, however, the language loses its vernacular charm and the stories simply become dull and derivative. What started out as the virtuoso invention of a language turns into an exercise in writing different forms of generic prose.

This may be Marche’s point, using the model of the anthology to say something about the trajectory of colonial literatures in general. But it gives the unfortunate impression that he started losing interest in the book a third of the way through, finally winding up with uninspired imitations of magic realism and post-structuralist theory. By the time we get to the potted biographies at the end, Sanjanian literature, which shines in quirky little tales like “Professor Saintfrancis and the Diamants of the End of the World,” seems more than ready for the academic obituary of an anthology.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2007.