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Thinking About Islands

Islands share a kind of common interiority, a personal sense of space that is just not possible to mainlanders. When you live on an island, all of it belongs to you, whereas on a continent, you have to share, you have to establish borders. That is not for islanders. Along with that goes a sense of the emptiness of the world, because on an island you could just disappear and who would notice? No one is watching. You could just fall into the sea.

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Postmodern literature loves nothing so much as a good hoax: the newly-found manuscript, the faux diary, the pseudo-dictionary. Stephen Marche’s Shining at the Bottom of the Sea (NY: Riverhead Books, 2007) is a winking, post-modern anthology of the literature and literary criticism of an imaginary Caribbean island called Sanjania. From the copyright page to the Acknowledgments 254 pages later, Marche purports to be a humble anthologist of a “tortured, complex country” which, he claims, contains “the most literary people on earth.” His Preface includes a number of deadpan photographs in the manner of W.G. Sebald to lend a bit of credence to the hoax.

Sanjanians, who were once, apparently, under British rule, speak a Joycean dialect early in their history.

The call came at the very backsunded end of the darkening, a clusterfist roughcutting my lintel and my future sleep, while I was just settling down for that truecomforting one last one at the old chafery. I must admit the old winkers grow beleaded latehourswise, and I had no yen for a cold zlear down portlandsway for another child-of-the-people murder or break-and-entry.

For awhile this dialect is fun to read, but ultimately I was grateful that the dialect weakens among Sanjania’s newer generations. Still, everyone in this anthology writes or speaks with a kind of quaint, provincial antiquarianism that doesn’t wear particularly well. Similarly, Sanjanian names have an artificiality that is equal parts cute and overbearing: Easter Swift, Charity Gurton, Trinity Hopps, Caesar Little, Pigeon Blackhat.

The anthology’s inaugural story gets the book off to a great start: “Wherever they may be, and wherever they may be from, all men do relish a hanging.” My favorite piece was a short story by one “Ira Rushton” that is simply the last will and testament of Sanjania’s prisoner number 2326. After willing his prison garb to be divided amongst his brothers, he requests that his skin “be flayed off by a registered taxidermist , and donated to the Queen of England, or her trusted servants in Sanjania, who loved so much to beat it during its period of use to me”. In another wonderful story, the character Friday steps out of Robinson Crusoe to write a corrective review of Daniel Defoe’s book.

Unfortunately, a few too many of the stories in Shining at the Bottom of the Sea creak under the burden of needing to do too many things at once: invent a history of a country, develop a distinctive culture, demonstrate an evolving literary history. Among other defects, this results in a lot of unnatural explaining. In the midst of one story, for example, the “author” has to provide an aside to explain the nature of Sanjanian currency, something that no real author would feel obliged to do.

Is anything about this book really worth the effort of maintaining the hoax? Even the Sanjanians are aware that theirs is a not a culture that the wider world cares much about. In the end, this is a bravura performance dedicated to the re-creation of a mostly mediocre literature. If Stephen Marche had a higher purpose in mind, it gets lost in the effort to maintain the elaborate machinery of the charade.

Further Reading:

A wonderful revision of the Robinson Crusoe story is J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986).

For an entirely different type of literary hoax, there is a great series of books on the imaginary island of San Serriffe by Henry Morris done on his own Bird & Bull Press. These beautifully printed limited editions include The Private Presses of San Serriffe, The Booksellers of San Serriffe, The First Fine Silver Coinage of the Republic of San Serriffe (containing an actual silver coin and a 25 coronas note), and that unforgettable tome The World’s Worst Marbled Papers, Collected by the Author During a Five-Year Expedition to the Republic of San Serriffe. Read all about San Serriffe at Wikipedia.

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