31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 13: “Sanditon” by Helen Marshall

May 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hair Side, Flesh Side

Hair_Side_Flesh_SideAlmost 200 years after her death, Jane Austen continues to exert a powerful influence. Her novels are read, studied, discussed, and emulated. In publishing, she is something of a cottage industry, inspiring tributes, sequels, and books of non-fiction. Recent titles arising out of the Jane Austen canon in one form or another include The Jane Austen Book Club; Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World; The Jane Austen Marriage Manual; The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder; Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination; Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen; Dancing with Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by Jane Austen; and Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating. Austen, it seems, is everywhere.

And yet, there has never been a Jane Austen story quite like Helen Marshall’s “Sanditon,” which owes its title and  subject matter to the famous Regency writer, but owes an equal debt to the work of British horrormeister Clive Barker. Unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Emma and the Werewolves, “Sanditon” is not a mash-up or a parody, but rather a full-throttle horror story that happens to take Austen’s work as inspiration.

The title refers to Austen’s unfinished final novel. The story involves Hanna Greeson, an editor at the Toronto firm Belletristic, Inc., who has been sent to England to scout new authors. While she is there, two separate but interconnected events occur: she has a one-night stand with Gavin Hale, a married novelist, and she discovers a strange welt on her neck: “The skin was dried out, rough, but the space itself was numb, as if all the nerve endings had been disconnected.” As the lesion spreads, Hanna grows increasingly concerned, eventually enlisting Gavin’s assistance. When the author examines the wound he discovers what appears to be Jane Austen’s final novel, complete and entire, written on the underside of Hanna’s skin.

Stephen King once said that if he tells someone the premise of a story and that person laughs, he knows he’s on to something. And indeed, a brief summary of “Sanditon” makes it sound like a kind of morbid shaggy dog story. But in Marshall’s hands, the admittedly bizarre premise becomes a springboard for an examination of illness, fidelity, and literary celebrity.

When Hanna first discovers the spot on her neck, her initial assumption is cancer. She recalls hearing stories about women discovering lumps in their breasts, and feels a pang of guilt about an erstwhile university acquaintance who had to take a year off to undergo chemotherapy: “There had been a list of people who had signed up to go with him, visit the hospital and keep him company. Hanna hadn’t been one of those people. She had liked him well enough, but the whole thing was a bit grotesque.” Her confusion and fear about the unknown nature of her disease is acute, and she reacts viscerally, initially wishing it had been Gavin who had fallen victim, not her:

Screw Gavin and his books and his beautiful voice and his cat’s smile and his wife, damn them all to hell and chemo and let him be the one. He has a family, and that’s why you have families, so you don’t need anyone to sign up to sit with you while you die.

Marshall’s writing, like the films of David Cronenberg, is heavily occupied with matters of flesh and blood; Hanna’s anger and confusion about what is happening to her is couched in sanguinary metaphors: “This was the first bit of raw meat that had been dangled in front of her … and she couldn’t help but take a swipe at it. She just wanted to see something bleeding.” Hanna’s initial exploration of the affected area is described in minute, almost loving, detail:

She could feel the roughness, a slight sponginess as she put pressure against it, that same feeling of simultaneous tingling and numbness. A hard scarab shell, scab-like. She forced her nail into it. The tingling intensified, but it didn’t feel bad – just very, very strange. Slowly, she dug the nail in until she could feel the edge of the thing against her finger. She dug a little bit more, scratching, getting the other fingernails involved. Then something peeled away, flaking off between her forefinger and thumb.

On numerous occasions, Hanna’s skin is likened to paper, which underscores the association between writing and writer, between creation and creator.

This association takes on an ironic tone, not just because the reason a complete version of a 19th-century novelist’s final, unfinished work should appear under the skin of a present-day editor from Toronto is left unexplained. Once Gavin comprehends the provenance of Hanna’s illness, he contacts his agent and secures a lucrative publishing contract, then begins making the rounds of the talk-show circuit to discuss “his” discovery. Gavin not only effectively takes credit for the manuscript, he quite literally appropriates Hanna’s very body for his own purposes.

Marshall signals Gavin’s predatory aspect early in the story, when Hanna refers to his “charming smile,” which she compares to the Cheshire cat’s smile, during his initial seduction. She notes the smile again later, lying in bed with him in her hotel room, the two of them watching Gavin give a television interview about the newly discovered Jane Austen novel: “Television-Gavin was saying something witty to the camera, and, muted, Hanna just caught the close-up on his face, smiling. She thought about that smile – the cat’s smile – slipping on and off again, the warmth of him beside her. Felt a little sad.”

Compare the cat’s smile that Gavin has perfected to Hanna’s own reaction to her disease, the image of her “pacing … back and forth like some kind of large predatory cat locked in a cage,” wanting to take a swipe at a piece of raw meat just so that she can see something bleed.

In case there is any doubt about Gavin’s motivations, Marshall erases them with a scene in which Hanna calls the writer for assistance, only to have him brush her off: “Really, Hanna, it was very lovely to meet you at the conference, but – you know how these things go, when the cat’s away … There’s really nothing I can help you with.” Note, once again, the feline metaphor applied to Gavin, as well as his unwillingness to come to Hanna’s aid in the absence of any kind of personal reward. Gavin only agrees to meet Hanna after she threatens to reveal their tryst to his wife; when the two get together at a local restaurant, he takes her into the washroom and fucks her.

Gavin’s appropriation of Hanna’s person, of the phenomenon contained beneath her skin, is turned on its head in the final scene of the story, which features Hanna inserting a manuscript of her own underneath the lining of her flesh, literally internalizing the words that she has created. This image is given extra resonance in the aftermath of a conversation between Hanna and Gavin’s wife, the only time the two characters meet. Gavin’s wife – who, significantly, is never given a name of her own, but is only ever referred to as “Mrs. Hale” or “the wife” – admits to Hanna that she has known about her husband’s serial infidelities for a long time, but has decided to put up with them.

And the truth is – the real truth, between us women – is that I’d rather have Sanditon. Even if Gavin never wrote another word, the world would keep turning, there are plenty of Gavin Hales in the world and no one would really mourn. … But then there’s you, my dear, and then there’s Jane. And maybe the world can’t live without her. Maybe that’s what it all means.

Kay vs. Laidlaw, how to structure a story collection, and other subjects that have pissed me off recently

July 16, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Yr. humble correspondent is in a punchy mood. Perhaps it’s a result of the cold meds, perhaps the combined stress that accrues to a runaway train of impending deadlines, perhaps the spectre of the upcoming awards season, which promises yet another swamp of soporific pablum to wade through. Whatever the cause, it seems that lately I can’t read much book-related news without winding myself up into a state of high dudgeon. Witness:

1. Katherine Laidlaw at the National Post recently responded to a column by Post writer Barbara Kay, which was itself a response to Laidlaw’s “gushy” profile of Lisa Moore, part of the promotion around the publication of Moore’s second novel, February. Laidlaw’s profile includes the following sentence: “Moore is clear about one thing: This is a book about vulnerable, irrepressible love, and what it feels like to have that torn away.” That sentence is enough to send Kay – who admits that Laidlaw’s profile “smothered – rather than aroused” her interest in reading February – on a tear about the ills of CanLit:

I’m chary about experimenting with any Canadian author who gets a good review, especially for a novel that’s up for the Giller Prize. I’ve been burned several times by Giller-endorsed, but virtually unreadable CanLit. They’re all jumbled together in memory as feminized paeans to a sepulchral past, mired in poetically lyrical, but navel-gazing narrative stasis. So I tend to view boosterish reviews of this genre through a cynical lens.

[…]

Welcome to the unrelenting self-regard of CanLit, where it’s all about nobly suffering women or feminized men: men immobilized in situations of physical, psychological, or economic impotence (that is when they’re not falling through the ice and nearly drowning), rather than demonstrating manly courage in risk-taking or heroic mode.

To which Laidlaw responds, in part:

It is introspection and deep character exploration that make Canadian literature a worthy, albeit divisive, genre. Without the reflection of characters scarred by traumatic events, such as war, depression, natural disasters and genocide, to name a few, Canadian literature would lose its essence, not to mention its most celebrated authors.

I suspect Ms. Kay’s definition of CanLit as “navel-gazing narrative stasis” will not sit well with Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, or Ms. Kay’s readers, many of whom I dare say support our country’s literature.

Laidlaw accuses Kay of not reading Moore’s novel, which is fair comment, if true. Of course, Kay doesn’t admit to not having read the book; she merely says that her interest was “smothered” by Laidlaw’s piece. (Yr. humble correspondent has had his interest in any number of novels smothered by profiles or reviews, then has gone on to read the books, for any number of reasons. Some of them have even surprised me by being enjoyable.) Still, Kay’s argument about noble suffering characterized by “paeans to a sepulchral past, mired in poetically lyrical, but navel-gazing narrative stasis” seems to be a fairly accurate thumbnail of much CanLit. True, this description would not sit well with the authors Laidlaw names in her rejoinder, but that doesn’t make it any less precise.

What is nettlesome, however, is the peevishness that seems to accrue to both sides in this – admittedly, rather trivial – dispute. Kay, for her part, can’t conceive of a novel about an oil rig disaster that doesn’t focus on the men immediately involved in the tragedy. (For her, Mary Swan’s novel The Boys in the Trees, which circles around the massacre of a family but never treats the crime directly, would probably not be satisfying fiction either.) Laidlaw responds to Kay by unleashing a petulant, ad hominem attack that ends with her speculating that she’d withhold an invite to a hypothetical book club, “lest [Kay] become emotional at the very thought of our discussion.” Which probably sits just fine with Kay, but doesn’t contribute much to the literary discussion.

2. BookFox recently published an article titled “Ten Guidelines for Structuring a Short Story Collection,” which offers such Writing School 101 bromides as “put your best stories at the beginning” (later contradicted by the suggestion that stories be ordered according to the “logic” of an hourglass, Möbius strip, or musical improvisation structure), ensure that the last story “open[s] the book out,” and order stories with overlapping characters alongside one another (thank God no one ever told that to this guy).

As a whole, this list is a bluerpint for a kind of bland, paint-by-numbers approach to short fiction. The fact of the matter is, authors are free to structure their collections any damn way they please. Some employ a musical, point-counterpoint structure, some (like Joyce Carol Oates) prefer to structure their collections thematically, and some use a pattern (spiral, chronological, circular, etc.) as a structure. Telling a writer to put the novella at the end because a reader won’t be prepared for its length is ridiculous.

But it’s suggestion number eight that really steams my asparagus: “Here’s another piece of advice from Daniyal Mueenuddin: ‘The first story … should be bright and immediately appealing.’ Bright is key – you don’t want a super-depressing story to launch the collection. You also want one that appeals to the largest demographic (that is, if you want people to continue reading.)” Jesus wept. That’s right Faulkner, O’Connor, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Poe, and Hemingway: if you want people to keep reading, make sure the first story in your collection is a cheery one. Otherwise, your work will never survive.

3. The folks at Quirk Books, apparently bolstered by the success of their Jane Austen/zombie mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, have announced another title in what threatens to become a series. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is set to publish on September 15, which just happens to be the same day that The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s sequel to the Da Vinci Code, drops (such is the hubris that 600,000+ print runs can engender).

Yr. humble correspondent thought that P&P&Z was a nifty concept undone by a sloppy execution; it never occurred to me that it might be the book that launched a thousand mash-ups. The mind boggles at the possibilities: Silas Marner and the Sasquatch; The Woman in White and Werewolves; Anna Karenina and Aliens; Tom Jones vs. Jason. (Okay, I might be convinced to pick up that last one.)

But surely this is a fad with an extremely short shelf-life. It was amusing the first time (conceptually, at least), but how long can the “series” possibly drag out before the law of diminishing returns inevitably kicks in?