Sense and Sensibility
and Sea Monsters

nolead begins By Jane Austen

and Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books. 343 pp. $12.95 nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Katie Haegele


What makes a thing funny? You certainly know it when you see it, but it can be hard to explain how and why it works. Maybe it just comes down to obeying the principles of storytelling itself: knowing where the story begins, as well as when to end it.

Funny is the bread and butter of Quirk Books, the charming and prolific Philadelphia publisher that produces smart-aleck but blessedly unbilious how-to spoofs and choose-your-own-adventure parodies (and some "real" books too). This year Quirk had one of its many lightbulb moments: to make clever use of literature in the public domain and add comic-book-grade violence to a starchy classic. Writer Seth Grahame-Smith produced the hybrid Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the resulting spectacle was a hit: It has been translated into 17 languages and optioned to be made into a movie.

Now Quirk has published a second such novel, also based on a Jane Austen work, "posthumously cowritten" with Ben H. Winters, a playwright who lives in Brooklyn.

In Austen's 1811 original, the Dashwood sisters lose the family home to their half-brother when their father dies, so they move to a cottage on a relative's property where they must contend with romance, questions of propriety, and the struggle between levelheadedness and strong emotion. In Austen and Winters' 2009 novel, the Dashwood sisters lose the family home to their half-brother when their father dies, so they move to a cottage on Pestilent Isle, where they must contend with pirates, the Devonshire Fang-Beast, and other sea creatures with "man-hating instincts."

A very funny idea, and there's a pleasure in watching someone be so silly with the kind of book generally treated as sacrosanct. Winters constructed his version by using much of the original text, and some of the funniest sentences are the ones that begin with Austen's phraseology and then tumble into ridiculousness. Marianne tells her sister: "Of John I know very little, though we have lived together for years; but of Willoughby my judgment was formed the moment when he first hacked off the impossibly strong tentacle that had encircled me."

Winters displays (and apparently expects) impressive stamina here, sustaining his joke for a solid 340 pages, and he eases you into the more preposterous scenarios gently, so you have to read a while before you realize you're in really outrageous territory. One early clue: An uptight ball, fraught with conversational pitfalls, has been replaced by a tiki dance fraught with conversational pitfalls and a man-sized jellyfish that eats a partygoer, leaving behind only her whalebone corset and a clump of hair.

In a recent essay for Slate, Winters discussed his approach, saying he studied Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and even H.P. Lovecraft for ways to describe the sea and its monsters in ways that sound correctly old-timey. He blends these elements together in an intelligent and surprising way, which I suppose makes him a mixmaster of the, um, domestic-novel-meets-monster-movie genre. He has figured out how to do modern-day stupid-gross the way a Regency writer would.

One of the most interesting results is that the original passages, when they're included unaltered, are funny, too. The characters' brutal politesse is often reproduced word for word, and when it's used to navigate schools of malevolent man-eating fish instead of dinner parties and house guests, it gains a new resonance, resulting, at least a little, in a comedy of manners more jarring than the original.

But is that really the point of this book? And if it is, once you get the joke, how many gags do you need to read?

In the mixed-up mashup culture we live in, reusing old sounds, images, and ideas and recombining them to make something new has become a proper art form. But it's one thing to listen for the samples in a DJ Spooky track, or to read a Paul D. Miller book (that's Spooky's given name) on the possibilities of remix culture. It's another to read a satirical novel based on the practice, a novel that in essence is a one-joke work. I did, basically, read almost all the words, I swear - and I wondered who else is going to read it. Buy it, especially as a gift: Yes, people will do that. Laugh out loud upon hearing the name, definitely. But as for reading the novel in its entirety, either to marvel at its cleverness or to find out what Miss Godby told Miss Sparks at the man-versus-giant-catfish event? Plenty of you might be up to it, but I found it hard.

S & S & SM was illustrated by Eugene Smith, old-school style, and the one-liner captions are some of the best things in the book: "Edward sought to grapple with the rear quarters of the great fish whilst it opened its massive wet maw around Mrs. Dashwood's head." And don't miss the ferociously funny "Reader's Discussion Guide" at the end. ("Have you ever been romantically involved with someone who turned out to be a sea witch?") The humor of this book is first-rate - and in smaller doses, the point of making the joke in the first place would have been easier to grasp.

Contact Katie Haegele at katie@thelalatheory.com. Her Web site is www.thelalatheory.com.