||Deep In Denial
by Shaun Smith
"Based on an actual historical incident, all individuals and events in this accounting are fictional," so states the copyright page of Mary Swan's historical novella, The Deep, her first book. The incident is the death of two Canadian women, Ruth and Esther, fraternal twins who travel to Europe as volunteers during W.W.I. The accounting is an overly precious, self-consciously literary, occasionally clumsy, frequently turgid work of middling mannerism. But none of that is what is truly wrong with this book.
Swan, a librarian at the University of Guelph, tells this tale in a series of vignettes from the perspective of multiple narrators. The vignettes range in length from three lines to six-and-a-half pages and we hear from figures such as the twins' father, their school's headmistress, a corporal who met them at the front, and a sentry who witnessed their fate. Most of the vignettes, however, are told from the perspective of the twins themselves, in the plural "we".
This unusual voice has a very narrow range of utility in fiction. It is usually the voice of one person speaking, not necessarily accurately, on behalf of a group. In The Deep there is no inaccuracy; Ruth and Esther are the group, but while they may be physically separate, they are joined, like Siamese twins, at the level of consciousness. They speak with one voice.
Swan avoids making the most of this tantalizing supernatural premise. The Deep is, at heart, a horror story. It hinges on a single bizarre plot twist divulged at the end which should give the novella chilling psychological force. But the twist relies on the "freakish" nature of twins and The Deep's freak quotient, to coin a phrase, is exhausted by that plural voice. Had Swan saved her "we" for the punchline, by staying outside the twins' heads until the end, or by using the plural perspective without divulging the identity of the speakers until the climax, The Deep's premise would have lost none of its climactic power. Instead, that "we" almost immediately becomes a trope of gross artificiality. It feels flat, imposed, too obviously a device of thematic¨rather than narrative¨portent.
In short, The Deep is in denial. It is gothic melodrama desperately yearning to be high literature. Gothic melodrama can be high literature, but then, of course, it is no longer melodrama. Timothy Findley's The Wars contains horrifying scenes of W.W.I trench warfare with which Findley milks every drop of dramatic power from a plot always driven by character. "In drama," wrote film director Sidney Lumet, "the characters should determine the story. In melodrama, the story determines the characters." Unlike Swan's secondary characters, who have some depth but do not propel the plot, Swan's twins are almost completely characterless. Their actions are dictated wholly by the novella's plot.
It is reported that Swan laboured over this story for some ten years. Revision can kill a work by intellectualizing it, smothering the original spark of invention and producing what John Fowles calls "an analytically arrived-at theme." That's how The Deep feels, smothered with meaning. Swan's "we" is not only dutifully symbolic, it, and the rest of the story by extension, is also generic. Indeed, having exhumed this plum true tale, it seems as though Swan tried to resuscitate it by plugging in both the standard, hackneyed mock-Jamesian fin-de-siFcle voice, as used in everything from romance novels to Red Rose Tea commercials, and the now-tired W.W.I themes of existential horror so thoroughly covered elsewhere by stronger writers, such as Findley, Pat Barker (Regeneration trilogy), and Beryl Bainbridge (hers was the Crimean War in Master Georgie). Any Promethean spark here has long since gone cold. The Deep reads like a competent art-school student's exercise in drawing in the style of a master.
But all that is not what is truly wrong with this book. To get at what is truly wrong with Swan's book, one might ask, who is Swan emulating? Any number of Victorian or Edwardian authors come to mind¨Henry James, Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster¨but one in particular presses forward.
Like many of his cherished, comic characters, O. Henry, as Guy Davenport informs in his introduction to the Penguin Selected Stories, was a suspected con man, a convicted embezzler and a certain liar. He was also a literary genius, master of the ironic twist ending. It is perhaps his technique (minus the comedy) to which Swan is most indebted, for what matters is not that Swan's twins die, but rather how they die, revealed at the book's close.
"The O. Henry Awards is an annual collection of the year's best stories published in American and Canadian magazines," so states the O. Henry Awards page, on the Random House website. Some readers, it appears, are still fooled by the sort of stilted, fraudulently poetic writing offered by The Deep: the novella won first prize in the 2001 O. Henry competition. Awards bestow marketability. Given that the O. Henry is the most prestigious short-fiction award in the English-speaking world, and given that The Deep is such a mediocre work, one is further compelled to ask whether the novella was published on the basis of that win alone. The answer seems obvious. And that is what is truly wrong with this book. O. Henry would have appreciated the irony. ˛