Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, the second novel by Stephen Marche, purports to be a compendium of Sanjanian literature, Sanjania being “little more than an invisible dot in the middle of the North Atlantic, almost in danger of becoming a phantom island.” Introduced by a scholar named Stephen Marche, this “anthology” illustrates Sanjanian literary development over several hundred years, from the distribution of pirate narratives and morality tales in the eighteenth century, to fiction’s engagement with the struggles of the colony under British rule, to the flowering of narrative that came with Sanjanian independence in the postcolonial era.
The stories themselves are sometimes slight, pastiches of styles and modes that have little to recommend them besides their literary-historical value. “Pigeon Blackhat” seems a condensed version of Daniel Defoe’s Roxana, while other tales range from the political to Carveresque minimalism to magical realism. The earliest stories display an odd though interesting use of language (in compounds such as clusterfist and neologisms such as fictioneers, and in a generally gnarled syntax), but this eccentric usage fades as the anthology progresses.
What the real Marche is attempting here is the creation of an imaginary culture entirely through what can be inferred from his anthology’s stories and apparatus (in addition to the introduction—a tongue-in- cheek look at book-culture studies—the book offers a preface by one of the writers, biographies of the authors, and a selection of criticism). One might think of Malcolm Bradbury’s Why Come to Slaka?, a satiric travel guide for a nonexistent country, and the entire Jetlag Travel Guide series. Or consider Michael Martone’s parodic reinvention of the Hoosier State in The Blue Guide to Indiana. On the other hand, there is the way the nation of Zembla is brought to life in a seemingly nonparodic way by one Zemblan’s annotations of a non-Zemblan poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
Yet Shining at the Bottom of the Sea neither gives itself entirely over to parody (at the expense of narrative) in the manner of Bradbury’s and Martone’s work nor uses parody as a springboard to make a wholly palpable, intriguing world (in a way that allows one to enjoy the narrative fully) as Pale Fire does. Instead, its method falls uncomfortably between the two strategies, and the result can’t be appreciated as parody or enjoyed as stories. It’s easy to see Marche’s intelligence and wit, but with the exception of a few very good tales, the book is more satisfying when thumbed through than when read from start to finish (perhaps like most anthologies). Though the best selections here take on lives of their own, the others have too few of the satisfactions we’ve come to expect from fiction.