it's true what's been said countless times before: Shriek: An Afterword is a difficult book. much of the difficulty lies in the approach taken by Jeff VanderMeer: the book was 'first written' by artist/historian/art historian Janice Shriek after the disappearance of her brother, the disgraced (yet famous/infamous) historian Duncan Shriek, based on her own experiences but also deriving much from the journal of said brother and, therefore, her own possibly erroneous interpretations of her brother's entries in said journal (i.e., interpretations of interpretations). this disappearance, however, was not Duncan's last (such disappearances are apparently common for Duncan), and the manuscript Mr VanderMeer has published as a 'novel' has been 'annotated' by Duncan through personal comments addressed to his sister; he had decided against editing anything his sister had written, and makes his 'corrections' and additions ('digressions and transgressions,' as another historian from Ambergris, Mary Sabon, might say) in parenthetical statements within the main body of text.
the style, in a way, recalls the shifting narrative perspectives Mr VanderMeer employed in his first novel, Veniss Underground; written in three parts, each focusing on one of three primary characters, the first part was told in the first person point of view, the second in the second person, and the third in the limited omniscient point of view. in Shriek, Mr VanderMeer takes that approach several steps higher, integrating the various perspectives into a single, surprisingly coherent body of text.
another thing that has been said before is also true: Shriek: An Afterword is a frustrating book. the title serves as a kind of warning to readers: this book was never intended by Janice Shriek to be a novel, and because of the vagaries of the definition of an 'afterword,' she finds herself writing tentatively about what she thought she had to say, ought to say, or should say, and so the first three chapters, comprising the first 73 pages, are consumed by false starts. taking a quick gander at the first line of chapter 4, i see that chapter will begin with Janice 'starting' the book yet again.
and yet, in the hands of Mr VanderMeer, these two true facts about the book Shriek: An Afterword are not flaws. a truly talented writer does more than provide you with an interesting story, told in an interesting way; more importantly, imho, a talented writer convinces you that the particular story being told could not have been told any other way, whatever our own reservations regarding the approach employed.
after 73 pages, Janice tells us, she has yet to truly begin her narrative; and yet by this point, much has already happened, and these first pages are as filled with events as they are with insight.
and yes, it seems, this story could not have been told any other way. the approach offers the reader a sense of the siblings tiptoeing around the matter in question, revealing the tale uncertainly, tentatively, a sense that i find essential to the experience of reading this book. it is as if the book is asking the reader, subliminally, whether he really wants to know the details, while also holding the reader in thrall to the secrets the tale promises to reveal.
an important question to answer, this being the first 'proper novel' set in the world of Ambergris, is whether it is necessary to have read the previous volume of stories from Ambergris, Mr VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, prior to reading Shriek. i should like to know what a first time visitor to Ambergris would think or feel upon embarking on the strange journey of Shriek; i, for one, cannot tell. though i'm not the sort of reader who either remembers or perhaps even comprehends every secret or detail revealed by a particular work, it's a fact that, having read City, i find that Ambergris resonates. there's no better word for the way the former work informs my reading of the latter.
given my own experience, i should say no, one cannot be read without the other; the experience of City is too essential to Shriek, too vital. and yet, perhaps, the readings need not be done in that order. certainly, the books do not appear meant to follow each other chronologically, though, of course, a clue may again be derived from the title: Shriek: An AFTERWORD.
but is it necessary? it is, unfortunately, impossible for me to say. my experience with afterwords, barring spoilers, is that they can be just as easily read as forewords or prefaces. so perhaps it is possible to read Shriek without having indulged in City.
that said, i must return to my previous statement: one cannot, or, at least, should not, read one without reading the other. and that works both ways: if you've read City, it is essential to complete the experience by reading Shriek.
all this from the first three chapters. pretty good, i should say. and, despite my exceedingly high expectations for Shriek which i'd expected could not help but hurt my first reading, i find the book, at the very least, an utter pleasure to read.
in these first pages, Shriek has made me a promise of things to come. i really hope it delivers.