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.