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.