Thursday, May 02, 2013

Jeff VanderMeer, City of Saints and Madmen (2001-2004)

This book consists of a series of novellas and short stories, some published here for the first time, some not, set in VanderMeer's fictional city of Ambergris, a mutable city in a mutable fantasy world resembling M John Harrison's Viriconium.

Michael Moorcock declares that City of Saints and Madmen is "what you've been looking for."  Is this correct?  Well, kind of, though not quite to the extent that it could have been.  Let's not mince words here, however: the three novellas that open the book are really awesome, the best things here.  Everyone should read them.  "Dradin, in Love" concerns a missionary, returned to the city after a traumatic mission and long fever, of questionable mental stability, who falls desperately in love with a woman he sees from afar in a shop window.  This all takes place as a yearly festival is getting underway, and Dradin's mental state is echoed and reinforced by the chaos of the festivities.  Saying much more than that would be telling, but it's an odd and memorable start.

Then we have "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," which for my money is the best thing here: it's an alternate-world history text putatively written by a cranky old historian who is none too happy to be writing a guidebook for the unwashed masses, which he makes clear in numerous footnotes.  This history mainly centers around the relationship between the settlers and the enigmatic "gray caps," mushroom-people who inhabited the area before they got there.  There's an implicit suggestion--which resonates in various ways throughout the book--that the initial treatment of the gray caps represents a kind of collective sin that the city labors under.  It's all extremely intriguing and evocative.  There are no doubt people who wouldn't call this a "story," per se, but for the right temperament, it's fascinating, and the way the narrator is constantly emphasizing the fact that so much of this is speculation, and that different historians have their own ideas about its various particulars, adds some fun postmodern doubt.

Then, there's "The Transformation of Martin Lake," which interleaves art criticism about Lake's work with a story about the man himself, the two parts of the story complicating and casting doubt on one another.  The idea is that he has been mysteriously invited to an "invitation to a beheading," which is of course a Nabokov novel, which, if read, is going to add another layer of uncertainty here.  The "beheading" itself is an effectively strange and grotesque scene, and the story's somewhat perverse-seeming happy ending puts the cap on another enjoyably mysterious experience.

I am sorry to say, however, that the wheels go flying off in all directions with the fourth story (and last in the "main" section of the book), "The Strange Case of X."  The idea is that there is an investigator in a mental hospital who is questioning the mysterious X.  Who has VanderMeer's biographical details and thinks he's in a hospital in Chicago and has written a book called City of Saints and Madmen.


It's not that I'm unutterably opposed to metafiction of this type, but this concept is just such a hoary one, and VanderMeer doesn't do anything remotely interesting with it.  It's really just "here's this thing.  Look at it.  Are you impressed by the thing?"  You'd better be, 'cause that's all there is.  But…it's not really impressive, is the problem.  I could mention the obvious debt owed to Borges' seminal "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," but frankly, Borges comparisons are not going to do this any favors.  Presumably VanderMeer was working through personal issues regarding the boundary between art and life, but it just feels like trite faux-cleverness to little end, and it somewhat dulls the impact of the previous stories by forcing us to think of them as being part of a trivial literary game.

Well but anyway, there's more; these four are the "main" stories, and I believe the book was originally printed with only them, but then VanderMeer added a bunch of new material, more than doubling its length.  This stuff is framed as documents found left behind in X's room after his mysterious escape.  

Now, the only out-and-out failure here--but an interesting failure, and a noble failure, unlike "X"--is "King Squid."  The idea is that it's a monograph about squid (including a long, intermittently annotated bibliography) in which the writer gradually and with an unclear degree of intentionality, reveals a crime he has committed.  You say that's an awesome idea?  Goddamn straight it is--but the execution is lacking.  Ideally, in a story like this, the subtext is going to be revealed in bits and piece in a non-linear way, so it sort of gradually comes together, and even when it does you're not wholly certain what conclusion to draw--that last part seems especially important in a book like this, which bangs the "uncertainty" drum so hard.  But no; the truth is actually revealed in a really simple, straightforward way, mostly in the bibliography, and the fact that, oh, how convenient, these books, which are alphabetized by author, are nonetheless arranged in such a way as to form a continuous narrative and comment appropriately on that narrative makes it feel really artificial, and not in a good or intended way.  Again, I can't fault the thing for ambition, but aside from that…

More generally, though, I feel that the appendix really substantially dilutes the power of the first three stories.  I'm not saying there's nothing good here: "The Cage" and "In the Hours after Death" are genuinely discomfiting horror stories, and "The Hoegbotton Family History" is a brief but effective thinly-veiled account of the Jewish diaspora--but all of this mucking around somehow has the effect of making the earlier stories feel less real.  They do little if anything to contribute to an overall sense of time or place, and the author gets a little too wrapped up in how clever-clever this all is, so that by the end--when we're wading through an in-world account of the fonts used in the book (the appendix is full of odd fonts and page layouts) and a partially made-up author bio, we're sort of rolling our eyes and muttering, oh, give it a rest, VanderMeer. 

At this point, I'm honestly a bit leery about reading the two full novels VanderMeer has published set in this world.  But never mind that; in spite of all my complaining, I do not wish to understate the fact that "Dradin," "The Early History," and "Martin Lake" are hella awesome, and make this book plenty worthwhile by their lonesome.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

About King Squid. OF COURSE he reveals it. He's a murderer who is feeling guilty and yet doesn't want to say it directly, and yet must say it directly. Who do you think *wrote* the bibliography. Not me. The character. So you can remain above it as a reader and feel like you are superior to it somehow, but you're denying the character their own eccentric agency with that comment. Thanks for reading, however. (X, btw, is going to float your boat or not, but, um, influenced by Borges it is not.) Sincerely, Martin Lake

10:41 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Mmm. Well, maybe the conscious intent wasn't there, but you have to concede that the concept of small, seemingly arbitrary manifestations of another world starting to just appear is pretty much exactly the same thing that happens in "Tlön, Uqbar." And since I'm already in a Borgesian frame of mind from your bookstore, well...

10:59 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

...and to address the main point, now that I've had time to think about it: it's true that I was probably guilty of the cardinal reviewing sin of criticizing something because it's not what I wanted it to be, and for that I apologize.

But what's missing, to me, is the kind of desperate ambivalence that you would think would be associated with this rock-and-hard-place-type situation. He has to reveal it, and so he does. Okay, but in that case, why bother with all the squid stuff; why not just TELL someone? Answer: because he IS ambivalent, and as such doesn't want to be that blatant about it. He wants to be caught accidentally on purpose. Which is fine--I just did not feel that the kind of ambivalence that this would imply was supported as well as it might have in the text itself, which is after all all we have. There is a tension here between intent and execution that didn't work for me.

Finally and for the record, I would like to state that I don't feel "superior" to anyone or anything. I am not in the habit of gloating about how much awesomer I am than characters or texts, and if I didn't like your writing, I wouldn't have spilt so much ink on it (okay, so precedent suggests that this isn't necessarily true. But in this case I DO, dammit).

I mean, fuck, you included an Echo & the Bunnymen reference. How can I not appreciate that?

6:39 PM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Whenever I read comments from an author about the intent and meaning of one's writing, I am reminded of a drawing I made many years ago during a chemistry class. It was a simple, cartoonish head, and I thought that was all it was. When a friend sitting opposite complimented me on drawing it so well upside-down, I was confused. I had, after all, drawn a face right side up. But when I flipped the paper over, and viewed things from my friend's angle, I saw a completely different, fully formed head staring back at me, and he saw what I had originally intended.

Despite not trying to, I had clearly drawn two faces and two heads at once. Denying this second viewpoint would have been ridiculous. Anyway, I was happy to have inadvertently created something that could be seen in different ways, so why fight it?

But if I had spent a long time working on that head, thinking it through, revising and reworking the thing, becoming invested in a single sense of the drawing, would I have been so ready to admit that flipping it upside down could change it entirely?

Likewise with influence, as someone who consumes much and produces little, I am unsure as to whether or not I might be aware of all that informs my writings and drawings. I realize professional creators must spend more time making things, but I am not sure they are any more the masters of their own subconsciouses for it.

Even were some of them fully aware of all that went on in their minds, and thus totally conscious of any possible influence and intent, it wouldn't grant them ownership of the meaning or impact of their work once released to the public.

The Everly Brothers clearly weren't singing about my parents' divorce when they recorded 'Bye Bye Love' (thirty years before my folks' seperation), but that didn't stop my dad from taking it on as a sort of anthem at the time, and (other than it being silly) there was really no reason it should have. Nor should the French drop their national anthem because it was intended as a one-off song to rouse the troops before a battle for the now defunct kingdom of France. Nor must Americans stop singing their national anthem because it was only supposed to be a poem, and never meant to be sung alongside a bar tune to be written decades afterwards. Or, to leave music, it is not the case that we must give up understanding the works of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein because they claimed to be misunderstood by one and all, and because people still cannot agree on what they meant to mean. That is to say, readers are free to draw their own readings from a piece.

Arguments can be had about a piece's meaning (or what is or isn't, or should or shouldn't be in a text, film, painting, etc), and there will sometimes be victors in these matters, but, once the work is finished, it seems to me authorial intent has only a small role to play here.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

I suppose I should add that I think knowing the context and circumstances under which a piece was made, by whom, and why can enrich one's understanding of it.

And also that I take no position on the writing in question, having not read it. I am simply interested in the broader questions brought up by the author's response.

3:58 PM  

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