Stephen Marche's Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is a splendid curiosity, a faux anthology of the literature of a fabricated place called Sanjania. Marche, a Canadian whose first novel, Raymond and Hannah, was widely acclaimed, has dared to invent an entire history and culture, replete with local dialects and cultural touchstones, for this imaginary small island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic. By the time you have finished reading the book, it is hard not to believe that this little country exists. Most remarkably, Marche manages to pull off this fabulist act with 19 representative stories drawn from Sanjania's storied literary tradition.
Sanjanians, we are told in the opening line of the foreword, are perhaps the most literary people on earth. They like their literature cheap and plentiful, which has nurtured a tradition of freely circulated penny pamphlets filled with everything from crime stories and pirate tales to political polemics. As a former British colony, they have absorbed many of England's literary forms, but there is a strictly Sanjanian flavor in the stories island writers have produced. This is colonial and post-colonial literature with all its attendant features charming and unselfconsciously wise, even quaint, but peppered with a certain yearning and hostility.
The selections in the anthology span just over 100 years, but they reach back to earlier roots, when shipwrecked sailors, smugglers and fallen women kept things lively in Port Hope City's Portlands District. Marche, who positions himself as an anthropologist in the preface, says that Sanjanian writing, when considered at all in Europe and America, is portrayed as the product of vice and revolution. Determined to combat that misconception, he includes a very wide array of stories here. There's the Sherlock Holmes-like "Professor Saintfrancis and the Diamants of the End of the World" by Julian Back, a touch of magical realism in "A Wedding in Restitution" by Cato Dekkerman, a bit of postmodern narrative game playing in "Leonard King's Histories of Aenea" by Various Things. One marvelous story posits (quite convincingly) that Sanjan Island is the setting for Shakespeare's The Tempest; another short piece offers a hilarious reappraisal of Robinson Crusoe's adventures as witnessed by the Man Friday.
To lend further verisimilitude to the enterprise, Marche includes a selection of criticism that illuminates and expands upon some of the writing included in the anthology, as well as biographical notes on all the writers. Coming from an academic background himself, he manages to imbue these amusing snippets of scholarship with just the right degree of arch pedantry.
What Marche accomplishes in Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is astonishing. He has written stories in such a diverse range of styles that one is hard-pressed to credit them to the same writer (in an interview accompanying the advance reading copy of the book, Marche says he actually wrote about 150 stories by some 100 different writers before settling on the ones to include in this anthology). He succeeds admirably in convincing us that these stories are the product of different writers, writing in different times. Most of the stories seem so unassuming on the surface nearly every one is fewer than 10 pages long. Rich in detail and characterization, though, they cumulatively convey an extraordinary amount about the Sanjanian experience, flavored by the yoke of colonialism and the tentative baby steps of independence.
Every season many new books are mislabeled as a tour de force, but relying on my dictionary's definition of that phrase as "a feat of strength, skill or ingenuity," it is safe to bestow this overused distinction on Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.
Not really a novel, not really a collection of stories, it is a bold book that does nothing less than reinvent narrative and the ways in which it can be used to tell stories large and small. At book's end, we would gladly read more Sanjanian stories, if only we could.
Novelist Robert Weibezahl lives in California.