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Neither Fish nor Flesh

Stephen Marche talks about his brilliant new mockthology.

In a time when fat prose often passes for literary daring, Canadian author Stephen Marche has managed to write something so original it could almost claim its own genre. Over four years Marche wrote more than 150 short stories by fifty different authors from the invented island of Sanjania. Out of these he gleaned fifteen stories and created Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a fictional anthology of Sanjanian short fiction. Every detail is convincing, from the foreword and afterword, to the literary criticism to the authors’ bios. In the stories, Marche depicts more than a century’s worth of stylistic evolution in Sanjanian literature, and his ability to write convincingly in very disparate voices distinguishes him as one of the most versatile writers out there.

Mark Mann: Okay, first a question that I’ve been curious about from the moment I realized what you were up to: which came first, the fictional anthology or Sanjania? Stephen Marche: One day about six years ago, I was heading to the bathroom in Robartes library when I picked up an anthology from Bolochistan, a country I had never heard of but which has an incredibly rich literary heritage (incidentally it's where Osama Bin Laden is probably hiding right now). I knew that instant that I was going to write a literary anthology of an invented country. I had been reading at the time another book about Ghost Islands of the North Atlantic. Everything, I think, flowed from those accidents.

MM: Whenever I try to describe this book to friends, I’m always racking my brains for a genre that fits and usually just end up mentioning Borges. In the book you are an archivist, and like Borges you use academic language to create compelling fiction. How did you come to see the literary potential of non-literary prose? SM: I would describe it, pathetically, as a mockthology, although parody doesn't really describe it. My feeling was that I may be kidding, but the writers are dead serious. Using nonfiction was kind of a no-brainer since extreme realism is the point—but I also think that academic prose at this moment is more ripe for parody than it's ever been. And I wanted to exploit that fully. Using non-fictional modes is as old as the novel: look at Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year.

MM: In your first novel Raymond and Hannah you were constantly shifting perspectives and attitudes, and in Shining at the Bottom of the Sea you use a huge variety of authorial voices. How is polyphony important to your writing? SM: Polyphony has been more or less forgotten in British, American and Canadian novels since WWII. (AM Klein's The Second Scroll is an exception, and there are others of course.) This is why our literature is so boring, while African and South American literatures are so fantastic. In thousands of creative writing centres all over North America, writers are being told to search for their "voice." Dickens listened. He listened to the voices on the street and the voices in his head and then he shoved them in one place. A Dickens novel is like a city. Most short stories and novels now are like a single house, or a single room.  (Polyphony, incidentally, is probably the wrong word, because to me it has the connotation of voices coming together in harmony. When I'm good, the voices are jarring.)

MM: Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is at least partly similar to the fantasy genre, not in the sense of magic realism or paperback dragons but more in terms of total world-building. Were you influenced by any fantasy writers, or am I way off target? SM: I don't know about fantasy. Even the books that I really enjoy, like Snowcrash or Neuromanceror Philip Dick, I find they always have parts that are shoddily made, which irritates me. And of course they’re always so focused on showing the world they’ve made. Look ma, alternate reality! To me it’s like local colour in exotic novels.

MM: In one of the pieces of criticism at the end of the book you write that Sanjanians admire modernist literary development, that their writing is religious to its core, and that they can’t resist platitudes and pat endings. These qualities do in fact accurately describe, at least in part, the stories in this anthology, and much of the criticism reads as a defence of these attributes. What was the impetus for creating a literary culture that requires an apology? SM: I don't think Sanjanian stories require an apology, but I liked the criticism section because it makes the stories harder to understand not easier. Take the two reviews of A Wedding in Restitution. As for the question of naivety, any anthology has to have early stories—you, like me, have probably had Canadian literary anthologies shoved down your throat from a very young age. They are overwhelmingly full of crudities. Besides, platitudes always cover more than they reveal. Shakespeare's full of them.

MM: Throughout the book, there are expressions of deep resentment and dislike for the British. SM: I think dislike for the British was simply a question of realism. The intelligentsia in British Colonies did not like the British. That's a fact. Not in India, not in Africa, not in the West Indies. And the reason for that is simple: the history of British civilization, of which you and I are a part, is inevitably the history of British barbarism. The riots in Sanjania over the Abyssinian question in the thirties happened for real all over the Empire, and were particularly ferocious in Trinidad.

MM: One of the interesting things about this book is that the Sanjanians themselves are engaged in the same activity as you, to build their world—you’ve created a culture that seeks to create itself. One of your writers, Octavia Kitteredge-Mann, says in an interview at the end of the book that the Sanjanian frontier is interior. What are some of the issues of identity that you wanted to address with this book? SM: Novels have a clear history: the eighteenth century was a about propriety, the nineteenth century was about property, and the twentieth century is about identity. "Nation, religion, language, these are nets. I will try to fly by these nets." That's Joyce, but Joyce was all about himself, his soul, his time, his place. These novels are my attempts at cosmopolitanism. I think being Canadian, with such a weak sense of national identity, makes it easier.

MM: In Raymond and Hannah, the title character Hannah goes to Jerusalem in order to discover and recover her Jewish heritage. Her feeling of exile is really powerful, just as it is for the Sanjanian writers in this anthology. Is it appropriate to draw a correlation between Sanjanian identity and Jewish identity? SM: I don't think Sanjanians are like Jews. I think they're more like Canadians. But I did say in [my first novel] Raymond and Hannah that Canadians are like Jews. Marginal identities I guess.

MM: In the preface, Leonard King says, “…the anthology you hold in your hands opens up the varied life of the Sanjanian story as a whole, which is the best possible introduction to the tortured, complex country itself.” In this sense, could the anthology, which relates the “Sanjanian story as a whole”, be called a novel? SM: Of course this book is neither fish nor flesh. I mean, you can't call it a short story collection without losing the whole point, but then again it’s not a novel. Or is it? I mean, there is the overview of the plot, which is captured in Rashomon style by a bunch of characters. It's just in this case, the characters are writers and the plot is a nation's history. You know what, I think it is a novel.

Meet Stephen Marche at Maisonneuve and Penguin Canada's Pub Quiz launch Party on Thursday September 13, 7:30 PM at Ye Olde Orchard, 1189 de la Montagne. Tickets are $5 (price includes participation in pub quiz, latest issue of Maisonneuve Magazine and a wee bag of fish and chips). Win great prizes!