I bought this book in Montreal.
Oh, Montreal. The Moscow to my Chekovian home of dog, doctor1, poet.
It was like a real city, y’know.
You probably don’t know what I mean.
The buildings were spaced like normal buildings in normal cities. People there didn’t behave like they were weirdly excited – and almost surprised – encounter other human beings. There are places to drink that are explicitly not shit to drink that don’t seem to be exclusively aimed at people earning six figure salaries. It’s a real city. Every second overheard conversation isn’t between people planning trips to get away from it.
Anyway, in one of the hipster indie bookshops I insisted my lover and I visit while in Quebec’s biggest city, I bought this [tbf] gorgeous little 2019 paperback of a recently resurfaced Sylvia Plath short story called Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.
How was it?
Well, if this had been a chapbook from a tiny independent press (like my own chapbook, please buy, please, I have self-respect and a dog to feed), I’d rip the shit out of it.
This is messy, unedited prose; this is juvenilia of the most stereotypical undergraduate style.
There are subtle references to Greek mythology – e.g. the river of Lethe (can someone remind me what that means?) – but it feels almost identical to a Goosebumps-esque book I read as a ten year old about students on a bus that was, unbeknownst to them, driving to hell.
In this story, though, Mary Ventura is put on a train (not a bus) by her parents and it turns out the train is [probably] going to hell. However, because Mary Ventura insists on trying to get off the train, the creepy older woman sat opposite her starts praising her and tells her to jump off the train as it slows to go through a station (the SEVENTH kingdom), which Mary Ventura does and emerges into a very heavenly space.
No, there isn’t much substance here.
This is a manuscript Plath wrote when she was 19 or 20, sent it off to a magazine and it was, understandably, rejected. It’s not very good.
It’s a bit creepy, a bit sinister, but that mainly comes from a reader’s understanding of the classical motifs that Plath is deliberately evoking, rather than from the description itself.
Like when a normal (not repulsive) -looking person with beautiful friends gets misjudged as very attractive, Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is not inherently terrible, but it’s derivative and unsubtle and unimpressive.
What is impressive, though, is that Plath’s memory has enough of a reputation for Harper Collins, the fucking News Corp-owned publishing house, to issue this little story as a standalone book made for profit. Even though this turned out to be crap, I bought it because it looked pretty and had Plath’s name on, and there are people much crazier about Plath than I am…
Yes, as an intellectual exercise I enjoyed reading some immature Plath, but this isn’t great writing: it’s an uninteresting story and it’s an uninteresting story that isn’t told well.
Massive kudos to Plath’s estate for getting this published by an explicitly profit-driven megalith, but fair enough to Mademoiselle magazine in 1952 for rejecting the early work of the person who would go on to write The Bell Jar and Ariel. They were right: this isn’t great.
Plath, though, eventually, would become great, though she wouldn’t hold her greatness for long. And it’s nice, I suppose, to be reminded that even the “un-corrupted canon”2 still fucked up massively from time to time…
Not worth your time or your money. Then again, it does look great on my bookshelf…
1. My lover has a PhD in the Humanities and is not – I must stress – a sinister medical practitioner. ↩
2. By “un-corrupted canon” I clearly mean writers whose personal conduct and/or dated politics hasn’t overshadowed their literature. ↩