still, i managed to slog through about a bit(ish) more than half of Justina Robson's Natural History before i had to admit that i was just not getting into it enough to continue, much less to write a real-time-review of it.
thankfully, that doesn't really say much about the book. i went through the same sort of thing several times over the course of about three years with M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, until i started it up again about a month ago and surprised myself by getting to the end right before Shriek hit our shores.
Course is now currently one of my all time favorite books, and has, in fact, surpassed Viriconium in my mind.
that said, Natural History is still worth a few brief comments (though i have to say, these will be rather facile compared to the reading i did with Shriek as my head just hasn't been in it).
there are moments in Natural History that i can only describe as Kirbyesque. History's universe is one that is rife with magnificent visions of, of all things, people. it's the sort of bizarrely grandized reimagining of mankind that i myself utterly dig (and which i put down to writing, more or less successfuly, in my short story Generations). and it is at these moments that the book truly scintillates in my mind.
the Forged are akin to New Crobuzon's "remade" in China Mieville's Bas-Lag books; as with Mr Mieville and his remade, there seem to be no limit to the possible shapes and permutations of the Forged other than Ms Robson's imagination. however, unlike that bizarre subgroup of New Crobuzon's population, the Forged are people "remade" from birth for utilitarian, rather than punitive reasons. they are thus "enslaved" by the dictates of "Form" on "Function", an enslavement from which some Forged are actively seeking release.
unfortunately, it is in the smaller, more intimate moments that i feel Natural History loses me. "unfortunately" because, as far as i can tell, it's these "small things" that History, for all the jarring opulence of "big ideas" in the book, is really all about. the concept of Uluru, for instance, leaves me cold for various reasons. and the stories of Zephyr Duquesne and the Forged Corvax (disappointingly, a Forged human who seems to be trying to understand what it means to be "unevolved", or, one may put it, "unForged") just don't hold my attention. i could be wrong: for all its fecundity of incident (sorry, i just love that phrase, clunky as it is), i get the feeling that the first half of the book is nothing more than a set-up for the latter half, and the latter half may be all i need to turn me around on the book.
it may be some time before i get back to it, however, so i wouldn't recommend that you hold your breath for me to pick it up again.
in the meantime, i've dipped into a couple pages of Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop (rich, darkly beautiful faerie tale-esque writing, though at times a bit too melodramatic for my taste; i do love it when Ms Carter suddenly drops such throwaway, tongue-in-cheek lines as [paraphrasing] "she had to watch over her little sister in the garden to make sure she did not kill herself"), the entirety of Mervyn Peake's Boy In Darkness (a lovely little nightmare-or-not story of one of young Titus Groan's brief escapes from the castle, featuring one of the most chilling literary villains i've ever read: the Lamb), a couple pages again of Jon Courteney Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies (promising start, but left no real impression in my state of mind), and, most recently, and probably the book i'll stick with for now, M. John Harrison's Light. this will be my second reading of the last book, which i'm doing in preparation for the arrival of Nova Swing.
right. that's it for updates. will see if i can come up with a real-time-review of my second reading of Light. for now it's off to some coffeeshop or other to do an entirely different sort of writing altogether...
i never imagined just how close i was to the mark, just how far it would go.
it's out of my hands.
prepare yourself. neither Jeff and i can emphasize enough just how important that is...
1. Why should a reader pick up your book as opposed to, say, just about anything else?
Because these are survival guides. As the wall between Ambergris and the "real" world becomes ever more tenuous, many millions of people will eventually find themselves actually in Ambergris. That this will cause a real refugee problem for Ambergris' gray cap overlords is secondary to the fact that those people who have not read the books will be much more disoriented and disinclined to survival than those who have read the books. I have waited until now to reveal this deeper purpose in writing the books to avoid being called a crackpot, but since this has been occurring recently in certain quarters anyway, I thought it best to drop the charade, kick over the facade, and just say what's really on my mind.
2. If an autographed and vacuum-sealed copy of your book had been pinned in place of the Vitruvian Man on the Voyager space probe's paneling, what sort of message would we be sending extraterrestrial intelligences about the human race? What action, if any, might they take in response?
What you have to understand is that the entire space program is an elaborate PR hoax perpetrated upon the world's public to distract them from urgent Earth-based problems of lack of resources, overpopulation, and global warming. We are made to feel as if there is some "out there" to which we might eventually travel if conditions on our planet become too difficult. Or, we are given the feeling that there are peoples out there--aliens if you will--who might come rescue us or in some way change our lot on this planet.
Unfortunately, the truth is that a vast black barrier surrounds the Earth at approximately 100,000 miles beyond the Earth's atmosphere. The sun, the moon, and the stars all occur before or at this barrier, much as if a scale model of a solar system (and galaxy) had been built around us. The truth is, the sun does not heat the Earth. Nor does the Moon cause the tides. It is all an artificial construct and the scientists in the know have no clue as to who or what created us or why we are stuck behind this barrier. It's too frightening to think about, and that, again, is why we have all of these distractions, like the so-called space program. Which is more of an inner-space program.
3. What impact might your book have on a preindustrial civilization?
We will probably find out in about 50 to 70 years as global warming continues, as part of some experiment our unknown overlords have in mind, to devastate the planet. I would imagine Ambergris will become very escapist literature by then. But then, when the wall between Ambergris and Earth falls completely apart in about 100 years, it will become full-on survival guide material again. I don't really know if Ambergris will trickle out into this world or if our world will just be devoured whole. No one can really predict these things, or what the fault lines might be. All we can do is prepare for the crash, really. And try, in the meantime, to find moments of small beauty in our lives.
4. Sesame Street and the Muppets can be pretty wonderfully fucked in the head at times. Did they have any role at all to play in the development of your fiction?
The subliminal messages projected out into the unsuspecting populace by both Sesame Street and the Muppets are rather dreadfully "fucked in the head" as you put it. These subliminal messages reinforce the lies about our so-called space program, reinforce the "science" that we are told to believe in even though it is false, and try to relax us into not thinking about the black barrier 100,000 miles out in space. So my "fiction" is actually a reaction against such shows, inasmuch as it acknowledges them at all.
5. What effect might your book have on muppets? Which muppet is best suited, tempermentally, psychologically, physically, to reading your book out loud to children? Would you consider a muppet-read audio book for children?
Given that muppets are viral carriers of subliminal messages, I suppose the muppets would begin to subliminally imprint the reality of Ambergris on the unsuspecting populace. Which would be a good thing for when the wall finally comes down.
Audio is so last-year. But mostly I would not trust the muppets not to be releasing viral subliminal messages contradicting my own core message: that the boundaries between our so-called consensus reality and Ambergrisian subjectivity are disintegrating. That we need to be prepared for the moment when our consensus reality implodes into a fine mist of spores and we find ourselves in a land where everyone is their own world, their own reality...and most likely carted off to a gray cap detainee camp. This is the message I will be taking on my book tour, as well. It's what I'm devoting an entire documentary to, because it's the most important thing in the world right now. Whether anyone else sees that or not.
6. You mentioned Nabokov in your Bat Segundo interview; who else might we find wandering through the pages of your book (apart from the characters and other people actually mentioned in the story, of course)?
Most of my characters are based on Disney or Warner Bros. propaganda tools such as Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. The subliminal text of these propaganda tools is to reinforce the lies about the space program and our Earth's relation to the Sun, etc. I try instead to divert these archetypes to warn people about the divide between Ambergris and Earth falling apart, but I've only been partially successful. The problem is I'm only one person and I don't write that fast. The other side has hundreds of thousands of people working for it at secret locations all over the world.
Most of my stories about Ambergris are fictions using a real setting. Not many people understand that. So except for the people mentioned in The Early History of Ambergris and the entire manuscript of Shriek: An Afterword, you won't find many of those characters when you go to Ambergris. The writer allusions I make are simply to emphasize the fact that echoes of the real world already exist in Ambergris--and these echoes will become more and more prominent as, and it becomes tiresome to have to emphasize this, the divide between our world and theirs weakens.
It is perhaps now time to reveal that I stole Janice Shriek's manuscript off of her desk in the tavern the Spore of the Gray Cap and that the only part of it I really wrote was Sirin's supposed brief afterword at the end. So as far as I know, Shriek: An Afterword represents the only truly true account of Ambergris in any of my books. Early History is close, but I had to embellish it for literary reasons.
7. Have you ever been surprised to find yourself similarly wandering through the pages of someone else's story? If so, in what books, other than your own, to your knowledge, might we find you? If not, what or whose books would you like to be seen in?
Ambergris spreads like a virus. You find it mentioned in history books where ancient historians think they're describing Earth history but they've transposed little leaps of...I don't know what you'd call it? memory? matter?...Ambergris into their story. You also find it in many fictions, which is why novels and stories predating my Ambergris stories actually echo the Ambergris stories. I get exasperated sometimes when people talk about Nabokov, M. John Harrison, the Decadents, and Angela Carter being my "influences". The fact is, I got it right from the source, and I didn't distort the setting or rename it or anything like that--the way many of the others did.
As for what books I would like Ambergris to be in: as many as possible. At first I wasn't sure if I shouldn't in fact disguise the name and some of the facts, like the others had. But over time I've come to see that naming it correctly was very important. Because it does create a ripple effect. Many authors just coming on the scene today have absorbed a piece of Ambergris and allowed it to come out through their pores, into their fiction. And thus the process continues. I think this is the only way we will help prepare and save the human race when the time comes.
8. What has Ambergris got to do with Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius?
Well, again, these are all secondary or tertiary echoes. Poor old bastard Borges was afraid of seeing it properly. It was Ambergris that destroyed his external vision, but he still had his internal vision, so he could never really escape it. All of his work is about attempting to escape from that imagery, from the glimpse he had, looking into a still pool of water in a Buenos Aires courtyard, of Ambergris. It's in his journals if you know how to read them—that moment of clarity when the waters revealed to him the truth of the world. And ever since then he was infected, and became an infecting agent, no matter how he fought against it. It's nothing he could do anything about, except write. He thought he'd write the spores out of him without actually facing the subject head-on. But he was wrong. It wouldn't come out. It was inside of his skin, controlling him, so no matter how he fought it, a little bit of it would leak into the writing. He was strong, but not that strong.
There's not much more that can be said.
10. What the hell were you thinking?
A bit accusatory toward the victim, don't you think? I didn't ask for this. I didn't ask to be shown any of this. Can you imagine what it's like for a child to have this separate world open up around him, to be trapped there for three or even four hours? Except it was longer than that. I've mentioned in interviews that I was lost as a child in Rome for that amount of time, but I've never said where I was during that time. I roamed the streets of Ambergris for two days, and I was never the same. I couldn't go back to being a child after what I saw. All I could do is what Borges did--try to write it out of me. And like Borges, although without his talent, I couldn't face it head-on at first. I wrote "fantastical" fiction, yes, but not about Ambergris. It wasn't until my mid-20s that I found the courage, and only because I had to find some way to write the nightmares out of my brain or I would have gone insane.
So it's always been ironic to me that Ambergris has been the most successful of my creations, and a damnation at the same time, because it's not really my imagination at work. I'm more like a reporter who embellishes. I can't really describe how that feels. Basically, I'm a fake. A forger. An impersonator. And I comfort myself with the thought that, at base, I'm helping people. Come to an acceptance of what's going to happen in the next hundred years. And that helps. Sometimes.
9. What has any of this got to do with squid? Am I wrong in thinking that finding the connection between the squid, the spore and the gray caps is just as vital to our survival as everything else you've said?
The squid are just a social intercourse lubricant, so to speak. They're the sugar that makes the bitter medicine go down sweet, so you don't notice it. The fact is, there are giant freshwater squid in the River Moth, but they're not intelligent and they don't come out onto the land. Any agenda they have is locked away in their squeamous, soft-palate brains. They're vital as a source of meat and byproducts, but I don't believe they otherwise have any importance with regard to the gray caps. I could be wrong, of course. I've only visited Ambergris six or seven times, and on each occurrence it was only for a few hours.
10. Should we expect more from you about Ambergris? or have you exorcised those demons from yourself? will we, in fact, see Zamilon File or whatever's next come to light in the future?
How can you exorcise demons that are literal rather than figurative? How can you put aside a real place that you've visited? Especially given the context of anyone you tell thinking you're a complete crackpot. Zamilon File is a tricky thing because I have to use the gates. And the gates are unpredictable. To gather everything I need to gather for that, in terms of documents. Who knows? Maybe I'll wind up fabricating part of it? Which would defeat the purpose, but I'm not always a brave man. At the same time, I'll be the only cross-Echo whistle-blower in existence if I manage to pull it off. There may be a black barrier over our heads, but there's none between all of these Echoes. It's just tough to see them—see them at the right angles. Otherwise, it just looks like glints of sunlight. Specks of metal rust. A mote in the corner of your eye. See? I'm reduced to cliché when it comes to even beginning to speak of it…You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?
11. To end on a personal note, I'd like to let you know that reading "King Squid" in City of Saints & Madmen made my life a lot more bearable. To know that other people also have this squidanthropy affliction has made me feel much less alone. And I've even thought of showing my friends all of the squid costumes I've knitted for myself over the years.
You know, I have answered your questions with a candor and openness that I have never shown in any other interview. All I ask in return is that you keep your filthy hobbies to yourself.
My apologies. What choice do I have but to be what I am? Would you deny the King his due? I'd thought you of all people would understand...was I wrong? For your sake, I hope not.
Do not underestimate the Squid.
thanks, Jeff, for indulging a nameless hack. and for letting us know the truth, as you have come to know it, behind it all...
and watch this space for something cool in the near future. honest.
right. enjoy. or not.
*anyone who's read the printed version might notice a small but significant mistake i hadn't caught until i re-read my review here. in the printed version, i compared Ms Clarke's novel to books written in the 18th century, when in fact, Ms Clarke uses a distinctly Victorian voice, which places the style squarely in the 19th century. my apologies to Ms Clarke, and to anyone who was in any way misled by my error.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
By Susanna Clarke
While the Study of Magic remains a perfectly acceptable gentlemanly pursuit, as far as “modern” magicians are concerned, English Magic hasn’t worked for centuries; not since the mysterious figure known as the Raven King stepped out of history into that peculiar realm of faerie tale, legend and myth. The “modern” gentleman magician has therefore learned to content himself with “theoretical” magic, and a legitimate member of the York Society of Magicians, the most respected organization of gentlemen engaged in the Study of Magic of the day, could hardly be expected to even attempt anything so laughable as to actually “practice” magic.
Until, that is, the arrival of two magicians, who would, as prophesied by a suitably ragged and odious street conjuror of dubious magical ability, bring about the Restoration of English Magic.
Into all this fantastically drawn Englishness, Ms Clarke introduces us to two of the most engaging characters to emerge in fiction in recent years: the charming Jonathan Strange and the rather refreshingly unsympathetic personage of Gilbert Norrell. The eponymous characters alone make it all worth the price of admission, but the charm of the novel isn’t confined to the two protagonists. All the other characters leap just as lithely off the page, and while it’s true that some characters commit undeniably vile acts and others genuinely heroic ones, Ms. Clarke lets their deeds speak for her, never submitting to the temptation of pointing out the villains from the heroes, allowing each character equal opportunity for developing a special bond with the reader.
But the one who most threatens to steal the limelight from the main protagonists is Ms Clarke herself. Though the narrator never unforgivably intrudes into the narrative, her “mannered” style of writing, garnished with a liberal sprinkling of “scholarly” footnotes designed to tell stories within the story and enrich the book’s internal reality, may be a bit excessive for some readers. Imagine Jane Austen if she’d written an epic-length genre-fantasy illuminated with the kind of footnotes that are as likely to be found in dull 19th century social treatises as in Terry Pratchett’s wildly successful Discworld novels. However, perseverance has its rewards. The writing is always graceful, the footnoted digressions never fail to entertain, and the steadily building pace eventually sweeps the reader along with the story. In the end, the reader is drawn willingly from one chapter to the next, until he or she has nowhere left to go and nothing else to do but reluctantly turn the last page and finally close the book. Or, quite possibly, read it all again.
This book is a delightful dance of characters and events, an alluring blend of fantasy and history, social commentary and satire that is intricate without being confusing, intelligent without being forbidding.
What it amounts to, in summary, is an 19th century novel of manners written with unobtrusive yet definite 21st century sensibilities.
And Magic. Large, heaping dollops of it. And that’s a good thing.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, originally published as a single volume, is also available from
If you liked Ms Clarke’s novel, you might also enjoy:
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
The Baroque Trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) by Neal Stephenson
The Penultimate Peril, book the twelfth of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
in retrospect, my own analysis may have been a tad bit overwrought (ha! a tad bit?!?), and the best thing about Shriek, despite everything i've said which suggests the contrary, is how beautifully simple it is...but it was fun (for me, anyway) dissecting it the way i did, looking and finding and peeling-off layers that may never have been intended nor, perhaps, been really there, and, you never know, it might actually add something to your own reading experience.
right. anyway, what i'd really wanted this post to say (before i found Mr VanderMeer's comments and link and effectively derailed my mental composition for this post) is that the other reality has finally (expectedly) caught-up with this blog... i'm going to be starting the next series of (increasingly inaccurately named) real-time reviews having had quite a bit of a head start on anyone keeping tabs on this blog.
i.e., i'd already started reading the next book down my to-be-read pile (Justina Robson's Natural History) two nights ago, but haven't gotten around to really thinking about my reactions to it...you know, real world issues, work, all that reality catching up and getting in the way...
but i'll post the first installment as soon as i can properly wrap my head around writing a proper real-time-review entry. right. back to the other life...
that’s no small praise.
but i’m getting ahead of myself. i just want it clear that the following ‘review’, due to my own subjective enjoyment of the book, is going to be mucho biased in Shriek’s favor. still, i’d like to think i can throw a bone or two for you to pick on and decide for yourself whether it’s worth your time.
right. brace yourself, this is going to be a long one, even for me.
i try not to, but most reviewers tell you what a book is about so they can pick cleanly at its meat. i was going to do that here, but i chickened out at the last minute. and try not to listen to that guy in the comments section. (good grief you’re actually going to say it.) just because he wrote the darn thing doesn’t mean he’s any more reliable than anyone else at telling you what this book is about (apologize dammit! apologize!)
why am i so reluctant when i could just as easily have said ‘it’s about two possibly whacked-out and therefore unreliable sibling narrators and the people around them who may or may not have affected the life and history of the City of Ambergris and how the life and history of the City (including the ‘war of the Houses’ and the obscure and distant and uber-creepy ‘cataclysmic’ event called the Silence and something strange and new called the Shift) has affected said siblings and the people around them and how a war and the gray caps and at least a half dozen other things are muddled into everything and further help change everything (or possibly just the siblings and/or attendant characters) some more’ or possibly, thematically, even ‘it’s about mysteries; the nature of ‘truth’ and how we come upon it, whether through observation or imagination, scholarship or madness; about life, and death, and change; about different ways to have faith in the numinous; the numinous; about the complexities of love and hate and about the relationships between two possibly whacked-out and therefore unreliable sibling narrators and the people around them etc., etc…’ or gone to literary tropes and called it ‘a love story; a tale of the bizaare, the alien; an epic tale of history, war and strange machinations; a comic/tragic/satiric tale of politics and society, of artists and scholars, priests and merchants; a biography of several people all at once’?
or, even, ‘it’s about squid. and mushrooms’?
well, simply put, it’s because what this book is about could just as easily be what it isn’t about.
here’s the thing: it looks to me like whenever Mr VanderMeer writes about Ambergris, he plays an extreme version of the game (possibly) invented by Jorge Luis Borges in his Ficciones. Mr Borges’ game is pretty straightforward: essentially, he took the ‘easy way out’ to write ‘fantasy’—i.e., rather than write stories from or set in a fantastic world, he would invent the ‘documentation’ of those stories… or something like that. here, let him tell you himself, from his Ficciones:
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverished extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary.
in a way, Mr VanderMeer is playing the fool to Mr Borges’ emperor. he does, in fact, go on to write ‘five hundred pages’ (in Shriek, it’s about 345, but add to that City of Saints and Madmen as well) developing ‘an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes’ (i.e., with the emphatic statement ‘it’s about squid! and mushrooms!’), but rather than taking the usual route to writing a fantasy story (a story which would then, ostensibly, become the source of Mr Borges’ ‘imaginary books’), Mr VanderMeer takes a ‘once-or-twice-removed’ approach and writes, instead, those very ‘imaginary books’ that Mr Borges might then talk about, allowing the ‘imaginary writers’ of those books to comment on themselves and each other…and on the books.
Mr VanderMeer, however, adds another twist, or layer: unreliability. i am, of course, talking only of impressions (mine) and don’t really know anything about the actual motives (Mr VanderMeer’s) behind the writing choices made in this book, but it seems to me that he is operating on the principle that a writer’s omniscience belies the existence of the world he has constructed. after all, who can know everything about the world he lives in, or any other world for that matter?
in a way, that factor of unreliability, and the source of it (which i refuse to elaborate on here; you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what i’m talking about) reminds me of the games played by certain of M. John Harrison’s characters in The Course of the Heart. well, alright, here’s a bit of a spoiler: in Course, Lucas Medlar and Pam Stuyvesant play a game of imagination which is the ultimate expression of their desire to grasp at something numinous, to find comfort…it could be just such a game, it is possible to think at the end of the book, that, whether intentionally or not (and neither Lucas nor Pam in that other book, i think, do it intentionally), the siblings Janice and Duncan Shriek are playing.
and here, i imagine, would lie the book’s ultimate glory… and final frustration. at the end of the book, we find ourselves holding handfuls of the beautifully (intricately) detailed fragments of a puzzle that fit together perfectly (seamlessly) in so many different ways and still form a coherent picture. thus, in retrospect, we find we must call into doubt all the revelations we took for granted in the book as we read it.
certainly, while raising quite a few more questions, this book does hold answers to many questions concerning the world of Ambergris that were raised by City of Saints and Madmen, but only for readers who are willing to make potentially dangerous assumptions. and this is by no means the same book as City: in Shriek, Mr VanderMeer has created something entirely different, if cut from the same (if more mushroom-infested) cloth.
that is not to say that the book feels incomplete or in anyway unsatisfying, but we are confronted by all the unavoidable limitations one comes upon when seeking ‘truth’ in any of its forms.
of course, it could also be true that i am being much too clinical about the whole thing: the book can, in fact, be enjoyed for the sheer visceral effect it has on the reader. Mr VanderMeer has not written an easy piece of fiction in Shriek. but part of the gift of Shriek is in presenting us with all the uneasiness of our own entrapment in ‘reality’ in a beautiful, arguably easy-to-swallow (for the more literarily adventurous reader, perhaps) package.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword is, quite simply, the most complex yet viscerally pleasing and ultimately rewarding experience i’ve had with fiction since reading The Course of the Heart. and like that other work, it may well be that the next time i read it, i’ll have totally different things to say about it.
invoking Neil Gaiman’s Cain, from his Sandman series of graphic novel, he says ‘it’s the mystery that lasts, not the solution.’ (or something to that effect.)
in that sense, Mr VanderMeer has written a book that is also a mystery; this, i believe, is why Ambergris, of all the fictional haunts i’ve visited, positively resonates; and, yes, i believe both that world and this book will (or, at least, should) last.
you can feel it in the words (and in the thinness of the righthand part, especially compared to the lefthand part, of the book when you hold it open at the page i left off of last night): it's almost over.
i suppose i could have 'closed the book' on Shriek: An Afterword last night; 'closed the book,' put it and anyone having bothered to read, having been bothered to read and having been bothered by reading this blog out of their misery...
nope, couldn't do it. let me have just one last night in its pages...it's gotten disturbingly cozy for me in there...
i could argue that the adrenaline of the first two chapters of part 2 lingered for me past the intensity of those pages, carried me through the succeeding chapters even as Janice returned to the relatively banal descriptions of life-going-on in post-war Ambergris, and this may be true. however, as the pace slows considerably, jarringly after those events (of the first two chapters of part 2), restored to an unseemly sense of normalcy, it is also true that a sense of weariness has come upon the narrations of this Janice, as though the simple act of remembering those events has drained her; there is a relief to having passed that point, but it isn't all a relief.
while this Janice (and this Duncan) is (are) essentially the same as the one(s) we met in part 1, we know her (them) now well enough, it seems, to look at that Janice (and that Duncan) in a new light. and we begin to have a disquietingly comfortable sense of what this book is really about, even though the single objective truth behind it all remains, if it exists at all, for us, as it does for the characters, ultimately elusive.
tales of Ambergris, as befits a city borne of an aesthete as Boschian as it is Hawk-Alfredsonian, are richly textured and brightly hued, if often illuminated by a greenish phosphorescence and accompanied by a sweetly rancid odor, occasioned, at times, by a purple hint of lime. thus has Shriek: An Afterword been so far to the mind of this reader, but never yet more so than in the opening sequences of the second part of that book.
war has broken-out (and so had the skies outside my apartment, as if to provide a backdrop of rather ho-hum sturm und drang the Janice-Duncan balancing act thankfully, for all the violence of the relevant sections of the narrative, never allows the text to fall too seriously into), and as Janice and Duncan and all Ambergris goes about the rather tiresome business of surviving the war on a daily basis (or not, as the case may be), we are drawn head-long into the narrative, right through an explosive flurry of strange weaponry, stranger behavior and still-stranger diets, always being reminded that the worst is yet to come…
given the sheer cheek of Ambergrisians (and the book thus far), it isn't all that hard to imagine.
first off, i should like to amend what i said earlier about the menace being in Janice’s and Duncan’s words: not true. the menace does not emanate from the words, but from the spaces between the words…
i also failed to note earlier that the initial impression of being a ‘difficult book’ fades soon after the first few pages, and reading the book soon feels as natural as talking to yourself, or eavesdropping on a conversation in your head, or waking from a dream to a dialogue between ghosts over your grave...
a kind of frustration remains, however, though it no longer lies in Janice’s stultified narration (her ‘false starts’ now fail to interrupt the flow of her narrative; instead, they have become welcome markers, signposts on the strange journey through this life in Ambergris & its environs, reminding us of where we are in the overall scheme of the book; Duncan’s interruptions, while still occasionally jarring, have also become a welcome commentary: apart from being ‘illuminating,’ they also have the almost calculated tendency to echo our own sentiments, such that when he exclaims ‘get back to the underground adventure!’ or something to that effect, we find ourselves in complete agreement); no, the frustration now stems from the impression of Janice’s (and by postmodernist extension, Jeff VanderMeer’s; or is it the other way around?) seemingly overwrought ‘checklist’ approach to her (his) narrative: have i told you of my time at the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Hospital? no, i don’t believe so, and yes, i met someone there you may remember from City of Saints and Madmen…inconsequential, perhaps, perhaps not, but undeniably necessary to the integrity and interplay of this and that work, not to mention an interesting and fun way to weave them all together…aren’t i simply too clever for my own good?...check.
mind you, while it arouses suspicion, it isn’t out of place: i wouldn’t be at all surprised if Janice really did have a mental checklist of all the things she wanted to put in this ‘afterword.’ (and the fact that i have been referring to Janice and Duncan as being the ‘real’ writers of this ‘afterword’ is either a testament to Mr VanderMeer’s talents, or to the questionable state of my own reality-testing.)
either way, nevermind: the suspicion bears mentioning but is of no consequence. Because, it seems, Mr VanderMeer really is too clever for his own good.
it still manages to surprise me (in a good way) how the books i read seem to send tendrils into the ‘real world’…today, as i turned the final pages of the first part of Shriek: An Afterword, and the first move had been made in what would ‘later be known as the War of the Houses,’ the skies over the coffeeshop to which i’d decided to take the book and my reading this Sunday afternoon turned the sudden, sickish shade of a gray cap, but refused to break.
it was pleasantly surreal, this interplay of realities. i’m glad this universe isn’t above engaging in such paltry games with us mere mortals.
at this point, it must be obvious that this book has thoroughly absorbed me, and it no longer seems important to me that this book deliver its promised revelations; or, perhaps, it already has delivered: the book has invaded my reality; even now, i feel it is an experience i should have regretted foregoing (if it were possible to miss something and still know what one missed), and i cannot now imagine scraping the spores of Ambergris from my flesh before reaching the end…
Chapter 6, and i find i have to make just such a stop.
Chapter 6 is a visit to the cemetery, to old friends’ graves, made all the more poignant by its moments of humor and passion both; the entire book thus far has been such a visit to the past, but here, at last, we make a visit with Janice Shriek grounded firmly, for us, in her present. here we have our first image of Janice and Ambergris as they were when she wrote her part of this book…and with that image, for me, came a realization.
all this time, i’d thought Janice and her brother Duncan had been tiptoeing about the ‘core’ of this book. perhaps. but having seen Janice in her state as she broke from the afterword she had been writing to take a walk through Ambergris, revisit her ‘site of triumphs’ and those graves in her mind, i wonder if that is, in fact, the case.
instead, i think now of Janice not tiptoeing about the ‘core’ of this book (and might it not be, after all, too late to be tiptoeing?), but limping through her past, a past that has changed herself and Duncan and their friends and their enemies and Ambergris, changed their entire world so much that even if it weren’t for her age, even if it weren't for the pain in her leg, could she possibly not have limped?
it is a viciously poignant revelation, such that when she proclaimed ‘I am Janice Shriek’ at the end of the first part of this chapter, a mental shiver traveled down my spine, and decided to setup camp at its base long enough, at least, for me to set these words down...
so it was that last night, after i turned the last page of chapter 5 of Shriek: An Afterword, i put the book aside thinking i’d only be giving my eyes a moment’s rest (taking my cue from Janice’s own decision to stop typing for a while), that i would continue my strange journey through Ambergris that very night… and sleep promptly fell upon me and swept my wakefulness away like some raptor swooping down, having been perched upon my bedrail all that time, in wait for that vulnerable moment when...
for an indeterminate period of time, i was (and here i resort to cliché because, after all, being a cliché doesn’t keep something from being true) dead to the world; for though my days float placidly upon the river Lethe, nights are sheer Oblivion.
and then the nightmare came, the most vivid and complex nightmare i’ve had in a while.
the details of that nightmare have, perhaps, no place here, having, at least superficially, nothing to do with what i imagine was their source. and the source i imagine is this: Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword.
it isn’t that the last two chapters i read (4 and 5, respectively) were in any particular way horrific; in fact, after a pithy summary of Ambergris’ bizarre yet familiar (or bizarrely familiar) history, Janice goes on to describe a relatively mundane version of Ambergris that is most reminiscent for me of the decadence of Oscar Wilde, or of the satirical end-times of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (though my reading of the latter is as yet, admittedly, incomplete, my last attempt having been waylaid by the arrival of the very book i now find myself immersed in), apart from which these chapters contain nothing more frightening than going off into the woods and finding your way home, a description of Duncan’s scholarly dealings at Blythe (in the midst of which Duncan makes his lengthiest interruption of Janice’s text thus far), and the relatively placid, if at times argumentative ‘conversations in the park’ that her brother Duncan used to have with the (ex-) Truffidian Antechamber Bonmot.
and yet, for all their revelations in these last two chapters, the siblings still seemed to be tiptoeing about what i’ve begun to imagine as the core of the book…and we come at last to the main point of this particular entry, which we’ll get back to after one more brief digression.
despite my affinity for all things dark, dreary, disturbing and otherwise, er, creepy, i don’t read as much horror fiction as you might imagine. the reason for this is simple: most of those books do not achieve in me the desired effect. to put it bluntly, they don’t scare me.
but something about Jeff VanderMeer’s writing, particularly in this book, does. not in the way that might prevent one from getting up to go to the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night, but in a way that’s subtler, more insidious.
for all its efficiency (note: not economy; his writing may not be as florid as that of some other writers i can think of, but neither does it strike one as being wholly succinct or strictly pragmatic), Mr VanderMeer’s prose exudes a strange, indescribable menace, even in the relatively enlightening or even cheery moments of the narrative, such as those that tell us that, yes, love does exist in this bizarrely (subtly) skewed world (yes, the siblings Janice and Duncan do love each other in the complicated way siblings do, and they love other people and other people love them, as displayed in these chapters).
maybe it’s just me; maybe it isn’t something other readers will find in these pages; still, that subtle menace is an utter delight, and i look forward to returning to Ambergris as soon as it’s dark.