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Imagination as Witness

By (October 1, 2007) 2 Comments

Mister Pip

Lloyd Jones
The Dial Press, 2007

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea

Stephen Marche
Riverhead (Penguin), 2007

Most high school students love that part of The Odyssey when Odysseus slaughters all the freeloaders who’ve been courting his wife Penelope. Their desserts are too just not to be savored by the teenage palate. Others may see it differently. For some, the best part of this episode is when Telemachus convinces his father to spare the bard Phemius and the herald Medon. Everyone else can die, says the son, but these men must live to tell the world what happened here on this sad day.

Anyone foolish enough to call himself a poet or a writer especially likes this part. See! we tell ourselves when despairing of writing, see! It pays to tell stories. We don’t get slaughtered! Although bad days might not consist of hiding under the flayed carcass of a bull, as Medon did, or cowering in the corner like Phemius, the idea that telling the truth ensures another twenty-four hours on this earth is a comfort to those who work with words.

It is also a quaint notion. Take, for instance, the brutality of the 20th century. Writers have been censored, exiled, sent to labor camps, even killed when their version of the truth collides with that of official institutions. Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akmatova, Yiannis Ritsos, and Paul Celan immediately come to mind. Unfortunately, little has changed. Just this February, Human Rights Watch awarded Hellman/Hammett grants to help 45 writers from 22 countries overcome political persecution and the resulting economic hardship. Since its inception in 1990, this program has awarded grants to over 500 writers around the globe.

If writing can be such a dangerous game for the non-sycophant, then what leads a person to write what Carolyn Forché infamously called “Poetry of Witness”? Do certain writers have death wishes? How does a person become a witness, and what realistic effect can he hope to have? Where is such poetry written, and can it ever rise above its politics to become good literature in its own right? Two new novels—Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche—attempt to answer these difficult questions, though one with far more humor and grace and imagination than the other.

At first glance Mister Pip, whose title refers to the famous protagonist of Great Expectations, seems to be less rumination on storytelling than pure homage to Charles Dickens. According to Keith Donohue’s dust jacket comment, Jones “has given us Dickens brand new again”—a platitude which raises an early red flag. Why should a classic be “updated” or “modernized” or made “brand new” when there’s the good ol’ version waiting on the shelf? Donohue inadvertently paints Jones as an opportunist aiming to earn an easy buck by piggybacking off one the greats instead of doing something new and different.  

Such piggybacking isn’t entirely what happens at the beginning of Mister Pip, but it’s close. What’s immediately new and different is the setting: a small fishing village in the early 1990s, on a war-torn Solomon island trying to break free from newly-independent Papua New Guinea to which it nominally, though neither culturally nor ethnically, belongs. That’s taking us about as far away from the marshes of Great Expectations as we can get.

But amidst the strangeness, there’s Dickens. Mr. Watts, the only white man to remain on the island after government forces declare an embargo, assumes reluctant control of the village’s only classroom when the employed teacher flees on the last departing ship. He begins by reading from a book (“My father’s family name being Pirrip…”) and then announcing: “That was chapter one of Great Expectations, which, incidentally, is the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens.”

Mr.Watts’s poor, native charges go bananas for the daily installments of Pip and the gang. As the young narrator Matilda explains, “Mr. Watts had given us kids another world to spend the night in. We could escape to another place.” This attraction is especially strong for Matilda, whose father abandoned her and her mother to live in the city; like Pip, she feels the loss of her parent keenly. Great Expectations therefore becomes for her roughly what Estella is to Pip: a tantalizing introduction to a better, more desirable way of life. In this case, it’s the life of the mind, and she begins to feel squarely at odds with her decidedly anti-intellectual surroundings. For Matilda, Pip represents hope—“I knew things could change because they had for Pip”—which she celebrates by constructing a seashell shrine on the beach in Pip’s name. As the battle between the island “rambos” and the government-supported “redskin” mercenaries rages in the hills behind her village, Great Expectations offers a relief in that “it contained a world that was whole and made sense, unlike ours.”

At this point the novel grows tiresome. The connections between Matilda and Pip seem too pat, too easy, as if the novel were a garish advertisement for the enduring relevance of Uncle Chuck. Witness? The only thing being witnessed here is Dickens’s greatness. Thank goodness for Matilda’s mother, Dolores. She believes “Stories have a job to do. They can’t just lie around like lazybone dogs. They have to teach you something”—and she doesn’t think Dickens is up to the job. Although Dickens isn’t the ne’er-do-well she thinks he is—after all, he served as a powerful witness to the horrors of child labor, industrialization run amok, and the ghetto-ization of cities, among other things—her skepticism saves the novel from unadulterated hero-worship.

Even Mr. Watts has doubts about his lesson plans. He admits to his students his first day, “I have no wisdom, none at all,” a revelation he reinforces by inviting mothers and grandmothers to come share their wisdom. Some lessons are parables (Mabel’s mum tells of the heart seed that floats on the ocean), others poetic (Daniel’s grandmother says “Blue is the gap in the air of all things”), others practical (Gilbert’s mom says “to kill an octopus, bite it above the eyes”). All are stirring testaments to a culture threatened with extinction. Readers may find it easy to root against Dickens in the battle of young hearts and minds.

Dolores certainly does. She makes a habit of barging into the classroom to accuse Mr. Watts of corrupting the children. She informs him, “My lovely Matilda…does not believe in the devil. She believes in Pip.” Mr. Watts’s reply—“What if we were to say that on the page Pip and the devil have the same status? …Each is free to create himself anew. Each is also free to make mistakes”— gave me the nagging feeling that Mr. Watts is talking more about himself than Pip or the devil. Dolores’s rebuttal—“How will he know if he’s made a mistake?”—is her way of asking how Mr. Watts will know if he’s made a mistake. What if both of these proud characters have made mistakes?

Indeed. The middle section of Mister Pip, if section titles were given, should have been named “If Only” because the principle characters make many mistakes that hindsight would show were avoidable. After the first big twist the reader grows wise, but unfortunately the adult characters do not, and this dramatic irony turns Mister Pip into a tragic novel of near-Greek proportions.

Mr. Watts and Dolores, deeply flawed, hurl themselves into an abyss their limitations prevent them from seeing. Mr. Watts’s tragic flaw is an almost fanatical belief in the power of stories to transform and redeem any audience—even the rambos who demand to hear his life story, and even the redskins who (in one of the twists) confuse him for Mr. Dickens. When these stories fail to satisfy and cost him his life, Dolores’s pride and righteousness lead her to claim, at the worst possible time, that she is “God’s witness” to Mr. Watts’s death. The common denominator between them is belief, so it should be no surprise that for a brief moment they are allies, nor should it surprise that this alliance has grave consequences. There is a slaughter in the hall, after all.

But before things go awry, Mr. Watts does something extraordinary in the classroom, a lesson that resonates with grown-up Matilda years later. The redskins have just burned down every home in the village as punishment for not handing over the mysterious Mr. Pip, whose name they’ve seen emblazoned on the beach in gigantic seashell letters (they don’t know it’s Matilda’s shrine and wouldn’t believe her, anyway). Even though the fire has claimed their only copy of Great Expectations, the students show up to the only building left standing, the school, where Mr. Watts tells them to

Close your eyes and silently recite your name…. No one in the history of your short lives has used the same voice as you with which to say your name. This is yours. Your special gift that no one can ever take from you. This is what our friend and colleague Mr. Dickens used to construct his stories with.

A little clichéd, a trifle precious, circumstances notwithstanding. But Mr. Watts is preparing the children for their next task: to recall the beloved story they lost, to retrieve it bit by bit. Matilda explains:

Mr. Watts instructed us to dream freely. We did not have to remember the story in any order or even as it really happened, but as it came to us. “You won’t always remember at a convenient moment,” he warned us. “It might come to you in the night. If so, you must hang on to that fragment until we meet in class. There you can share it, and add it to the others. When we have gathered all the fragments we will put together the story. It will be good as new.”

Mr. Watts is training his students to be writers, and not just any writers: he’s training them to be writers of witness, Phemiuses and Medons who’ll sing of hard lessons—in this case, those lessons previously stored in Great Expectations and the harder lesson of how that story has affected them. (Though Mr. Watts sounds suspicious with his “good-as-new” promise.)

And how does Matilda respond? Consider her first recollection:

I remembered how I felt, how protective I had been towards Pip. I didn’t like the way Estella spoke to him, and I didn’t like the way Sarah Pocket teased and taunted him with gossip. I could never understand why Pip would accept the baiting of those two and never spat back.

She proves herself a moralist with these memories, a sensitive soul finely tuned to detect injustices and power imbalances. One day this instinct will serve her well when she serves as witness to the massacre of the people she loves. She will spat back.

It takes her a long time to realize that she must tell the story of this massacre—a good thing for her (she waits until she escapes from the island, far from the rambos and the redskins), a bad thing for us. The pity and fear (two feelings a tragedy must produce in its audience, according to Aristotle) of the middle section dissipate in the last fifty or so pages, as Matilda takes us through her remaining adolescent years spent with her father overseas, her success in high school and college, her decision to pursue graduate work on Dickens, her realization that her true interest is in another storyteller—that her own “Mr. Dickens” was in fact Mr. Watts. She abandons her graduate work and, while still in England, writes the story of Mr. Watts, which, she informs us, is the story we hold in our hands.

So. Mister Pip is one woman’s account of the tragedy that marred her youth and a tribute to the man and the novel that inspired her to locate and use her voice. That she must first distance herself might be Jones’s way of endorsing Wordsworth’s dictum that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”—the origin of poetry of witness, anyway.

The problem is, Mister Pip isn’t just “poetry of witness”; it’s “poetry on the poetry of witnessing.” Times have changed since Homer wrote The Odyssey, yet can you imagine Phemius singing a song about singing a song about that slaughter in the hall? He’d have just sung that damn song and be done with it. Then again, Homer put all those bards and heralds in his own poem, made them guests of honor at banquet after banquet, spared their lives, and he even alludes to his own poetic burden when he begs the Muse to tell all there is to know about this man of many hardships (presumably so he may tell us).

A few questions remain. Will anyone listen? Will listeners care enough to act? Is Jones challenging us to come forward with our repressed stories, to bear witness to the horrors of our age, or is he merely stroking the egos of writers? Most readers will sympathize with Matilda’s plight, but the careful reader may well wonder if Jones isn’t as flawed as his character Mr. Watts, if his belief in story hasn’t had the unforeseen consequence of turning off those who merely wanted to be told one. His depiction of Matilda’s evolution from audience to victim to scholar to storyteller is unambiguous and persuasive—and it may just have driven away those who came to the temple less for a sermon than for a hymn.

  If you are looking to be shown rather than told about the power of a story, look to Stephen Marche’s Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a novel that anthologizes the literature of an island nation populated by readers as voracious as its writers are talented. This island nation isn’t Papua New Guinea, nor is it any other island a person (not even Miss Teen South Carolina) could find on the map. This is the nation of Sanjania, located somewhere in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Prince Edward Island, and it’s a complete fiction, a figment of Marche’s prolific imagination

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is an extraordinary achievement in so many ways. First, Marche appropriates but modifies the literary concept of “utopia,” and in his modification he challenges the model offered by Plato, Sir Thomas More, Sir Francis Bacon, and others. Those authors frame their accounts of the ideal place (be it in The Republic, Utopia, or The New Atlantis) via an intrepid traveler whose narrative becomes a kind of ethnography informing citizens back home how city life cannot compare to provincial life. Marche nods to this tradition by parading as his anthology’s editor, even going so far as to pen the Preface, as well as occasional editorial notes and a spurious acknowledgements page thanking Sanjanian literary luminaries.

Marche’s conspicuous involvement, though brief, provides moments of glinting irony and self-effacing humor. When he informs us that “Sanjanian writing is the product of human beings who cannot be reduced to scoundrels or ideologues,” It’s no joke that he, Marche, ultimate author of Sanjanian writing, cannot be so reduced. When he offers his anthology with the guarantee that “You have never read anything like it” or confesses he finds it “distressing that Sanjanian writing is virtually unknown in Europe and America,” he is putting his tongue squarely in his cheek. And when he admits,

Carving a single volume from a literature as diverse as Sanjania’s was dizzying in its difficulty, and while I tried to make myself as open as possible, the decisions were ultimately personal. I suppose any anthology reveals more about its editor than its subject…

isn’t he laughing at the ridiculousness of his own project? This irony and humor determines the tone from the outset: he’s subtly poking fun at the moral indignation which led prior utopians like Plato and More to attempt to speak for an entire country or civilization. By undercutting that liberty with his disclaimers, Marche seizes the moral high ground: claim to speak for everyone, and you’ll speak only for yourself; claim to speak for no one, and you’ll speak for everyone.

And Marche lets Sanjanians speak for themselves, which is his novel’s second extraordinary achievement. After his Preface Marche gets out of the way to let his storytellers do the work. What glorious work they do! This anthology’s stories, essays, and interviews trace the development of a people’s consciousness through literature; they respond to the demoralizing effects of colonization, the struggle for independence, and inevitable new-nation jitters and false steps. What results is a literature of witness to events that never happened, a witness so detailed, so painstakingly drawn, in a language so unlike anyone else’s, that you believe the events themselves and the place are real. How can they not be real when these stories are so fully realized? (Marche finds good company here, for isn’t Homer also a “poet of witness” to events that never happened?)

One of Marche’s more endearing creations, the venerable Leonard King—
contributor of two stories here, professor at Port Hope University, mentor to anthologist Stephen Marche—writes in his Foreword, “Sanjanians are perhaps the most literary people on earth.” Note King doesn’t use “literate” but “literary”—meaning these people not only have long read stories by Dickens and Scott in pamphlets distributed by government vessels but also, since an 1891 advertisement called for “tales specifically from those of the Sanjan Nation, to delight, to amuse and to instruct,” they have written stories, too. Interestingly, this request for native literature came only after the last installment of Nicholas Nickleby; so one could say that Sanjanian literature, like Matilda’s from Mister Pip, emerged from Dickens.

These early Sanjanian pamphleteers wrote fables with pirates instead of animals as characters, fabliaux replete with prostitutes and soldiers, detective stories, and morality tales. “Professor Saintfrancis and the Diamants of the End of the World,” by Julian Back, 1863?-1921, is Marche’s attempt at Sanjanian hard-boiled fiction. Consider these lines, written at Inspector Langer’s arrival at the home of Lady G—, who seems to have lost her diamonds:

A solemn butler carried me up a grand case and through many dark twistways into Lady G—’s sally, the most bantamworked sally I ever stood straight in, and there upped Lady G— herself, the most anointed lonelywoman I ever struck, ginglegangled and goldhedged every which way. To the eye, a goodgerlack seemed to do her femaleness some good, but those are not my onions. A dernful priest was perched on her settee, I caught, once I’d smeared the dazzle from my peeps.

Apart from displaying Marche’s ability to manhandle the English language, these colloquialisms (“I ever struck” or “those are not my onions” or “smeared the dazzle from my peeps”), combined with portmanteaux that Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll would be proud of (“ginglegangled” or “dernful”), create a delicious patois that could belong to “nowhere” but Sanjania.

These stories are fun, but a highlight is “An Interlude at the Opera” by George Jankin Lee, 1896-1936. A story within a story, a frame narrative � la “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Heart of Darkness but set in an opera house instead of on the sea, it tells the story of four bourgeois dandies discussing the performance at hand during intermission, one among them decrying its “patently incredible situations and characters.” This comment becomes not merely a critique of Bellini’s La Sonnambula (which the gentlemen are watching) but also a critique of the stories so far in Shining at the Bottom of the Sea. It is Marche’s way of acknowledging that aspect of his work that might make a skeptic of the reader—the utter fiction of it all—and through this acknowledgement take control of the debate.

“An Interlude at the Opera” concludes with this wry observation from the narrator (himself a writer): “I must admit, though there are few greater admirers of maestro Bellini than myself, I took little from the second act, lost in the thought of how much greater are the dramas performed for us offstage.” Here we see that Marche’s vision for the role art can and should play in civic life is similar to Lloyd Jones’s: art enriches and deepens our understanding of everyday life, and this enriched and deepened understanding in turn challenges us to create provocative art in response. That is, good art requires that we be witness to what happens around us.

Which is precisely what the best stories in Shining at the Bottom of the Sea do. When Leonard King maintains in his Foreword, “Not only could we face political reality through our fiction, we had to,” he could have been thinking of “Flotsam and Jetsam” by Caesar Hill, b. 1945. Taking place in London, it revolves around two Sanjanian émigrés, one a young scholar, the other a used-book seller. Sanjania has won its independence from Britain, so why are these gentlemen in London? Apparently the new government has cracked down on intellectuals and writers, leading to a great Sanjanian Diaspora. Which brings us to Antony Percival Percy, who wants to know the previous owner of the copy of The Tempest he purchased from the bookseller Remus. Antony points to a note in the margin beside Ariel’s “Full Fathom Five” which mentions the date of Sanjania’s independence day, giving Remus an excuse to share his outrageous theory that Shakespeare wasn’t English—he was Sanjanian! “The answer is always in the text,” Remus posits, mentioning Miranda’s wonderment (“O, brave new world / That has such people in it!”) at the discovery of yet more humans on the island. About this, Remus says,

Of course what is never uttered is the obvious truth that Miranda’s description of braveness and newness is of Europe, not of Sanjan Island, or Sanjania as we now call it. I am telling you, compatriot, I am telling you, we are the Mirandas, we are called back to praise this Europe, we exiles are.

Paying witness, being called back to praise—whatever you want to call it—this is literature that testifies to a truth perceived rather than observed, which is: Sanjania is the font of authentic culture, not Europe! The Bard is ours, not theirs! Marche shows that one doesn’t have to witness a truth to “witness” a truth. In so doing he proves that he’s the magician, the real Prospero conjuring hard truths out of nothing, out of thin air.

This doesn’t make him a bullshit artist, nor does it mean he’s mocking poetry of witness; on the contrary, it shows he gets it. On Sanjania or off of it, his Utopians construct and deconstruct their world through words and stories, and what lies off the page is of no concern. It follows that what cannot be written cannot be experienced, which is to say, for a Sanjanian, everything can. As Leonard King writes in his elegy for his deceased wife, “Histories of Aenea by Various Things,”

Nothings. There was the nothing before her, and the nothing after her. There was the nothing from which she emerged without parallel, unlike anything or anyone else, and there was the nothing into which she dissolved, the same as everything and everyone. While I remember her, that is something, until I am nothing. While the story is, that is something, until it is nothing. Once can see they are things by the nothing and the nothing.

This passage sends ice-cold shivers up the spine. This is why we read, to arrive at moments like this. And to arrive at a moment like this is why some of us write, too. This is the poetry of witness, and it is more powerful for having emerged from nothing.

After such highs, the final “Criticism” section comes as a letdown, mostly because the brilliance is in the stories, not what people say about them (including yours truly). There are some nice moments, like a letter to John Dos Passos written by a drunken Hemingway who laments Sanjania’s rain but recommends its pirate pamphlets. Or when Sherlock Cole declares in a lecture at the inaugural conference at Port Hope University in independent Sanjania, “nothing can be invented, least of all a nation’s identity; it can only be remembered.” Or when Octavia Kitteredge-Mann—author of international bestsellers and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Institute of Island Studies on Prince Edward Island—insists in an interview: “I am my own country. I want to be my own country.” I don’t know about that. But I’d give anything to visit Sanjania.

Perhaps the best way to conclude this long review is to quote Blessed Shirley from his essay, “Why It Is Imperative To Pay Close Attention To Detail,” published in The Real Story (Sanjania’s first literary magazine). Attempting to explain why his journal has been rejecting “pirate and ghost stories, and comedy tidbits and prostitute parables with shiny endings,” he reasons,

The hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt no doubt meant a great deal to their carvers, but who would continue to carve them once he has seen a rendering of the human face in all its glory? Who will reference Ptolemy after peering through one of Galileo’s miraculous contraptions?

Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip is a testament to the power of story to elevate the soul, but he is Ptolemy. It is Stephen Marche who is Galileo, and Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is his miraculous contraption. Look through it and see a new star shining in the sky.

Chad Reynolds has published poems in various journals, print and online, including Diagram, RealPoetik, Verse Daily, Meridian, Washington Square, Redivider, Swink, and Puerto del Sol. He has work forthcoming in Sawbuck.