Dec 13 2009 11:05am

Sense, Sensibility, Sea Monsters: Rendered Insensible

By now, most of you would have noticed the Jane Austen re-writes on the market. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies started the whole thing. Then came Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters. (Separate from the Quirk Classics, but in a similar vein, is Mansfield Park & Mummies.)

I picked up Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (henceforth called PPZ) on a lark. The concept of marrying Jane Austen’s story to one of today’s most favourite literary trends sounded like an exercise in being clever. Although for some, “being clever” is tantamount to “being a jerk,” I generally have more trust in my fellow creatures than that, and looked forward to a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Which, from PPZ, I did get, mostly. Although I missed the DisabilityFail of my first read (Wickham’s paralysis becomes an object of mockery) and although I usually don’t enjoy parodies, I generally enjoyed the subtlety of how Austen’s voice was modified by Seth Grahame-Smith. The new martial arts edge to the Bennet sisters was not overplayed, and the added classism from that angle gave the story a way to look at the issue which was a bit more interesting than just “money.” Lizzie kicking Darcy in the face was, to me, worth the fact that Lady de Bourgh has random ninjas who exist only to be killed by Lizzie, and uncomfortably called “Orientals”.

(One moment about the word “Oriental”—rugs can be Oriental. Fine china, too, can be Oriental. People are Asian. But I left this microaggressive racism slide, because it’s not like Lady de Bourgh made it to every other page to extol the virtues of Japanese martial arts over Chinese martial arts, since she has other basis for classism towards Lizzie. Sure, there’s racism, but it’s blended into the background of the setting - 18th century England. It feels part of the story. Not only that, but the ninjas are clearly props. I don't like it, but I can deal with it.)

With how fun PPZ was in mind (my review here), I eagerly snapped up Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters (henceforth referred to as SSSM), given the modern treatment by Ben Winters. Peeking in, I saw illustrations of giant monsters! Sea serpents! An underwater city! People in those really old diving suits with goldfish bowl helmets! That’s so steampunk, you guys! It’s great stuff! Not only that, but I had read the original story a few years ago, and while I didn’t like it, I didn’t dislike it either, so I was curious to see how it would be treated.

I was disappointed. Austen’s voice is almost gone, except for the main story, which seems to drag on with all the added flotsam. I could not recognize any of the sentences, and it even felt like its quintessential English-ness was gone. Furthermore, the text expected me to suspend a great deal of disbelief.

Firstly, I am to believe that this place they live in, in the Northern Hemisphere, presumably England, is so extremely dangerous, and yet people still live on the coastlines, even off the coasts on little islands where they are sure to be attacked, on a fairly regular basis, by all sorts of monsters. And this England has hyenas. Why? I’m not sure. Apparently people like living in danger and no one lives inland, or something. Also, apparently, people are so caught up in their own petty affairs that everyone misses the little clues that the underwater city may be in danger, such as fish attacking servants who attend to the outer functions of the dome (wait, they’re servants, okay). A sister is going mad. And no one cares.

Secondly, the presence of “tribal” people. In an attempt to make Lady Middleton interesting, Ben Winters has made her an island princess, who was carried off by Sir John after the latter and his compatriots killed all the men on the island. I must believe that this is amusing, people! Not only that, but I must believe Lady Middleton’s mother, called Mrs. Jennings because her real name cannot be pronounced (oh, those strange foreign names!), lives in an underwater city for the winter while ignoring her daughter’s attempts to escape. I think I'm supposed to find funny the idea of this woman who is trying to get away from a husband she never wanted to marry and repeatedly failing. In fact, Mrs. Jennings and her other daughter, Mrs. Palmer, often passingly remark on how Lady Middleton would like to escape Sir John. This is taken as a matter of course. I could give it benefit of doubt and call it a comment on the colonialism of the times, or of the domestic abuse of today. The result is the same: it ends up reading as racism and apathy towards domestic violence (both are so edgy!), and no one cares.

Thirdly, Colonel Brandon is ugly. Did you know he’s ugly! Omg he is SO ugly! Every other page which has him in it consistently talks about how incredibly ugly he is! How unsightly he is, that every time the Dashwood sisters meet him again, they feel the need to vomit at the sight of his tentacled face! Winters spares no detail in the movement of the facial squishiness; he must impress on you how utterly, absurdly grotesque the tentacles are, moving as Colonel Brandon moves, indicating what he feels. And everyone else must constantly comment on his face, how ugly it is, how undesirable he is (and not just for his face, but also because he is so old! He’s thirty-seven! Ew yuck!) that only a woman who cannot see him would possibly want to marry him. Ordinary people, after all, cannot be expected to deal with people who have severe facial deformities respectfully. No, Colonel Brandon must work hard to prove he’s anything worth of Marianne’s affection. And I must trust that, after spending 75% of the book leaving the room when he enters, she will fall in love with him and he will be happy with her. He must do everything in his power to prove that his disfigurement does not take away from his humanity and that he is worthy of esteem. Thanks for reminding everybody that if they don’t fit in the conventions of what is physically acceptable, they’re SOL, and no one cares.

I understand that some people think that over-the-top writing is necessary to make people question why they find something funny. Which is a shame, because if I could discount the racism and the ableism (even some sexism) that takes up just about half the book, SSSM would have been a great idea—it’s got great stuff: the details of people being dismembered, a background setting where people try to figure out what caused the Alteration of the sea monsters, the description of the underwater city. Not only that, but Ben Winters has a flair for detail.

Unfortunately, the flair is wasted on hipster racism, sexism and ableism that overrides the text. My eyes were sore from rolling by a quarter of the book, and I was cringing somewhere halfway, and finally, I plodded one, wondering just how many more of these perfectly normal conversations between the characters would have to be spiced up with the addition of some horror-aquatic element.

Modern humour apparently requires some jaded, cynical worldview in which we are to say something we know is an -ism in order to show how in touch we are with the bad, horrible world. But you know what? Knowing something is racist, and saying it while knowing it’s racist doesn’t make it any less racist. Or sexist. Or ableist. It’s still an -ism, no matter how you wrap it.

So, I get it. SSSM is supposed to be completely absurd and I’m not supposed to take it seriously, it’s only a story, it’s a parody. But you know what? If you strip away any respect for the characters of the story, you also strip away any respect a reader can have for the story, and you have a story that disrespects the reader.

This is a shame, folks. I would have liked to have seen more kicking sea monster ass, not kicking people while they’re already down.

Jaymee Goh is a freelance writer, blogger and activist. She’ll take you seriously, too.

1. Sketchyd
Ths rvw s sht. dnt knw hw y gt t b sch n ql pprtnty, mrcns wth Dsblts ct pdnt, bt ts thrghly bnxs.

Nobody cares about the political correctness of two silly parody books.
2. GnomviD
Please ignore the troll above, Ms. Goh, it only wants your attention.

Thanks for a great review! I've been thinking about checking out these books, but it seems like I'll skip at least SSSM, now.
3. PRT
I actually felt about PPZ the way you did about SSSM. There was so much potential in these adaptations, most of which I felt went completely unfulfilled. These were designed as parodies to make fun of the Austen obsession, I think, but they would have been better served with a bit more respect for their source material. It is possible to make fun of the obsession both paying homage to the original and having fun with Zombies or Sea Monsters.
Fade Manley
4. fadeaccompli
I'd been wondering about these two books, and got warned off PPZ partly because of comments that the existence of SSSM clearly showed it was just a goofy fad. It sounds like PPZ is worth picking up, though, and SSM is clearly to be avoided. So now I know!

The "Oriental" thing is going to make me twitch when I come across it, but at least now I'm forwarned.
5. Reader330
I agree with so much of what you have written. I purchased PPZ and was disappointed in the unfulfilled potential. I too enjoyed Elizabeth kicking Darcy, but my favorite re-imagining is Charlotte. It helps explain to me why any thoughtful, intelligent woman, no matter how dire her circumstances, would choose Mr. Collins.

We have, however, turned zombies into entertainment; an ad hoc book group has formed, passing the book from one friend and city to another, writing snarky marginalia. That makes me feel like it was money well spent.
6. Marc Rikmenspoel
Isn't "Oriental" what Asian people were called in early 19th Century Britain? I think it is symbolic of a point in time, like referring to Irish people as "Micks." A book set 2009 would be insulting if it referred to Chinese people as "Orientals," but even parodies of Jane Austen are meant to seem antiquated. We're supposed to be reading about the era when a common British expression stated that "n-----s start at Calais." They weren't the nicest people, those Brits of the Opium Wars era...
Jaymee Goh
7. Jha
GnomviD: Thank you =) Well, you can still borrow this one from the library. The scifi influences are worth checking out. And the pretty pictures!

PRT: I think PPZ did quite well for what it was supposed to be. I even felt it improved on the original. But that's me, of course. I know others who were more disappointed.

fadeaccompli: It definitely made me twitch, but not too badly. It had the proper context, after all, unlike the throwaways in SSSM. It's very believable for the characters to be casually discussing "the Orientals". Yes, it's jarring, but I think it's in a good way.

Reader330: Charlotte was one of my favourite re-imaginings too!! I even felt sad for her towards the end. My other favourite added element was the "Kiss Me Deer" game the sisters played. It's so subtly placed in, and when one thinks about it, it's quite a great idea!

Marc: Exactly, which is why I let it thing slide. (And to be honest, Asians are still referred to as "Orientals" here and there.) That said, I still get twitchy when it's used. It's one of those terms which is very easily mis-used, by perfectly well-meaning people, hence my paragraph about it.
Tudza White
8. tudzax1
I see Marc covered my point. The use may be incorrect, but is probably as used by those the book tries to parody.

I understand the objection, but I wonder, am I reading to be instructed on the correct use of words and general PC attitudes, or to be entertained? I don't think I know you or your reputation well enough to take correction from you.
9. Vera Nazarian
A couple of disclaimers upfront:

1) I am the author of Mansfield Park and Mummies.

2) I have nothing to do with either the Zombies or Sea Monsters books, or their authors, or their publisher.

Now, having said that, I do feel I must come to the defense of both of these authors and their choice of period vocabulary -- in particular, the usage of the term "Oriental" and other possible period terminology that is distasteful, offensive, and otherwise unacceptable to the modern reader in a modern book.

When writing a parody of this kind, in order to do it well, the first thing a writer does is examine the literary voice of the original author of the classic, and that author's own vocabulary. The second thing is the examination of the period itself and its mores, its historical context.

A successful parody will incorporate both the specific literary voice and the period sensibility, and insert new material to match, and only then to expand the original.

Jane Austen and her contemporaries would have used the term "Oriental" to refer to people, and to rugs, simply because that was the mode of the day. A writer who recognizes this, will employ period terms. A reader who recognizes this, will understand the usage of such period terms in proper historical context.

However, I do understand that we, modern readers, can still be offended and upset -- and justifiably so -- when we encounter remnants of history's dark mistreatment, bias and even basic unkindness to people of different races, genders, and various minorities. And yet, we must not -- not even for a moment -- forget the context. Because the moment we forget, we cease understanding the big picture, and begin to internalize, and then to hurt, where no harm was ever intended.

A parody can be a wicked thing -- as indeed is all humor, if you dissect it down to its most basic elements. And a historical parody is both wicked and dated, which makes it only palatable if one is ready for it, in every sense possible. We have to put on special "Parody Spectacles" in order to appreciate or even accept the material presented in such a way.

And when we do -- when we look through the Parody Spectacles -- yes, we can dare to laugh, even at ourselves in our own uncomfortable predicaments. Because by laughing we in fact point out the wickedness, the evil, the folly of the past, and all the things that were (and sometimes, sadly still are) wrong in the first place.


Vera Nazarian
10. T-Boy
@Vera: You know, that's a lot of words in response to one paragraph's worth of review, that Jaymee already made clear that she was going to let slide because it fit with the period.

The book actually has more problems than the problematic use of one word, based on what I can see of the review.

Besides, I figured that the issue wasn't the author's vocabulary, however problematic it was. It was the constant ghastly repetition of themes and elements that were unnecessary and detracted from the original work's tone.
Jaymee Goh
11. Jha
tudzax: I'm not here to correct your language. If you want to persist in using the words, go ahead. Just be honest with yourself as to their origins and the harm they cause.

Vera: Hiya! I am actually looking forward to reading Mansfield Park & Mummies (offensive language does not put me off seeking great entertainment).

I agree with you that in order to be well-done, a parody must expand on the original. This treatment of SSSM, in my estimation, didn't expand it, but crushed it, cruelly. PPZ was much better, and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite misgivings (how many times do I have to say this, I wonder?). I'll be picking yours up when I see it on bookshelves

However, in my view, all humour must withstand analysis. If you analyse what you're laughing at and find it's not actually a laughing matter, then the material wasn't funny to start with. Laughter can trivialize an issue. Intentions can only take one so far. If harm is done, then harm is done. Knowing the intention can only mitigate, but it cannot erase the harm.
Paul Howard
12. DrakBibliophile
Off the subject of PC speech (or lack of), has anybody read _Emma and the Werewolves_ by Adam Rann?

I haven't read any Jane Austin 'retellings' except for one author's posting of her not-for-sale (yet) stuff on her site.
Jason Ramboz
13. jramboz
Jaymee, what you had to say about humor and irony really resonated powerfully with me. I think you really summed up something that I've been giving a lot of thought to.

I had a lot to say about it, and it grew just a wee bit long for a comment, so I posted it on my blog:

If you're interested, take a look. If not, that's okay, too. I just wanted to let you know that you're right on with that one. So thank you!
14. Foxessa
Jane Austen and her Creations earned the right to rest in peace sans detectives, vamps, zombies, mummies, etc. This must cease Now, nor should it have Begun. Goodness! have not such Creatures as Lady de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Caroline Bingley, Fanny Dashwood provided ample trial for Our Dear Jane down all these many Generations?

Fortunately, as we live in a Republic, I am not compelled to acquire these Travesties, not by Purchase or other means -- Nor am I compelled to read them!

Having Revealed myself forever -- as One lacking the organ of comic appreciation -- I remain respectfully, etc.

da Faux
Jaymee Goh
15. Jha
da Faux: I bear little love enough for Austen that she's fair game, and to be honest, Pride and Prejudice gained something in the re-telling, where we are treated to truly admirable heroines, with grace and strength of all sorts. These re-tellings have the potential to elevate the characters, make them beyond what they were, in a way that people today can relate better. Sea Monsters wasted that potential.
Madeline Ferwerda
16. MadelineF
I was terribly meh about all of this, but come on, Jha @15. "Truly admirable"? The heroines of PPZ were cardboard dolls articulated for a panting audience who every once in awhile had startling insights about the nature of humanity. When they were voiced by Jane Austen.

I saw all the faults in PPZ that you see, plus the faults you find in SSSM, plus more. The dude who wrote PPZ didn't get what was going on in P&P, and what's more disgusting, he didn't get zombies either. Zombies that were distracted by cauliflower? Come on. If you don't make your zombies inexorable and sad, what the hell is the point? Why not just have nonstop ninjas slipping on banana peels? There was no heart in PPZ.

And yeah, he missed Austen's point about canny people in somewhat difficult situations making understandly wrong choices and somehow working their way back to sense. Because he was too busy writing about action dolls. You liked Kiss Me Deer? Huh.
Jaymee Goh
17. Jha
MadelineF: There was no heart in PPZ, true, but it was still an amusing read. And yes, I did like Kiss Me Deer. It was slipped in and I actually had to think a bit about the whole exercise of catching deer and holding them down. (What can I say? We don't have deer like that where I come from.) I wasn't expecting high literary fiction with PPZ, so I got low-brow fare that amused me.
Chris Watson
18. docwatson223
I just completed SSSM after 18 hours of flying to Afghanistan and was dissapointed; the book drags on and on and on and I just wound up finishing it out of some weird need to complete it.

In short, it sucked. It sucked enough that I'm surprised that noone heard Jane Austen rolling over in her grave in frustration.
Estara Swanberg
19. Estara
I have yet to read it, it's on my TBR pile, but Sherwood Smith quite enjoyed Mansfield Park and Mummies (PPZ somewhat and this one not at all).
Mansfield's Mummery and humor
In the interest of fair play I must point out though, that she has been published by Ms. Nazarian, so has a personal relationship with her.

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