Friday, May 14, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris Cycle

Thanks to a bout of unexpected travel (with its attendant lengthy spans of time in which one is obliged to sit in place and do, essentially, nothing, during which a good book (or two, in this case) can really come in handy for the whole staving off boredom, madness, and anxiety thing (painkillers also work, but are not nearly so entertaining)), I have recently had the opportunity to finish the second and third books of Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris Cycle, Shriek: An Afterword and Finch.

Being that Mr. VanderMeer will be one of my instructors this summer at the Clarion Writers' Workshop, I'm going to do my best not to gush here, as there is some small chance he will read this and it would not be seemly and could conceivably make things a bit awkward come the end of July. But given that his presence at the workshop was the primary driver behind my application (I was perfectly content being all autodidactic and such until I realized I'd have a chance to work with him and the other stupendous badasses who will be teaching there this year), the possibility exists that I will not be able to stop myself.

But the truth of the matter is that I love these books, and am amazed and inspired by them, as individual works and, most especially, as a whole. I'm going to do my best not to spoil them for anyone who might be inspired to give them a read, but there's a lot of formal innovation and dialogic interplay that I'd like to suss out and explore, because I'm so bleepin' impressed with it. I think I should be able to do what I want to do without unduly exposing the overall narrative arc of the cycle or ruining the enjoyment of the story as such. If I do, apologies in advance.

Those four or five of you that follow this blog may recall my initial review of City of Saints and Madmen, which you can find here. In his own notes, VanderMeer refers to it as a mosaic novel, and the description is apt enough as, instead of the usual more-or-less linear narrative of traditional storytelling, CoSaM presents its subject, the fictional city of Ambergris, through a pastiche of shorter works and metafictions in which the narrative voice is not the author's own per se but is part of the fiction (not unlike the work of Soren Kierkegaard, albeit with a vastly different subject). It's postmodernity in the best sense of the term, the problematizing of traditional narrative devices and authorial conceits in the service of the larger work (rather than the navel-gazing wankery that so much postmodern art devolves into), which, in this case, is the provision of the historical, cultural, and cosmological context in which the city exists. The first part, Dradin in Love, is probably the most traditional work, being a more or less straight-ahead narrative in which a former missionary comes to Ambergris looking for priestly work and falls in love with a woman he sees in the window of a publisher's headquarters. The story serves as an introduction to Ambergris as experienced by the people there and eases the reader into its fictional lebenswelt, a strangely chaotic city with no formal government, where publishing houses are the titans of industry and the populace erupts once a year, during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, in an orgy of violence and murder that may or may not have something to do with the gray caps, an alien race of fungophilic hominids who dwell beneath the city and may or may not be planning on rising up and destroying it someday in retaliation for their wholesale slaughter by early Ambergrisian settlers.

Next is the Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by fringe historian Duncan Shriek (who will become rather an important figure in the city and the cycle, though little or no indication is given of it here), in which the story of the city's founding and early years is presented, along with several extensive footnotes in which the author (Shriek, not VanderMeer) offers extensive and often acerbic commentary on the subject at hand, along with many others. The tone is playful, and the dialogue between the body and footnotes represents the first instance of the interplay between authorial voices and their subjects and, most interestingly, the larger cultural and historical context of the city itself. It becomes clear that Ambergris, however chaotic its politics and civic life may be, is a place filled with art and a lively intellectual tradition. The Transformation of Martin Lake, which follows, and is written by Duncan's sister Janice, a gallery owner, continues the process of dialogic interplay, alternating between a more narrative account of a transformative event in the life of a painter (an event which inspires him to greatness from mediocrity and obscurity, and that has much larger ramifications in the life of the city as well) and an art-historical treatment of the major works inspired by it, although the event itself remains secret to all but Lake himself.

Then comes The Strange Case of X, in which VanderMeer himself is transported to Ambergris and locked in a mental hospital for being a crazy schizophrenic, as who would not be, telling all and sundry that he created them, their city, and their world, and doesn't understand how it is he came to be here? Told from his psychiatrist's perspective, it's relatively straightforward and seems almost disappointing (after all, its narrative conceit is pretty well-worn territory), but once you're through it and on to the Appendix, which comprises half the book, you begin to realize that there was more going on there than you realized at the time.

This retroactive problematizing of things you've already read and thought you got the first time seems to be a theme of the Ambergris Cycle.

The Appendix comprises a number of shorter works mentioned in passing in The Strange Case of X, which further expand and enrich the cultural history of Ambergris, both mainstream and fringe, and which also continue the formal innovation and experimentation that seems to define CoSaM as much as the story itself. My personal favorite is King Squid, a tract on the Ambergrisian subject of Squidology, whose author slowly reveals himself over the course of the work (and the bibliography!) to be far more interesting than he might initially have seemed.

Shriek: An Afterword, the next book in the cycle, takes the form of a memoir. Written by Janice Shriek (the gallery owner to whom the scholarly portions of The Transformation of Martin Lake are attributed) about her brother Duncan, and ostensibly meant as an afterword to The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, the story is as much a tell-all about herself and her complicated relationship to her brother as it is a commentary on his trials and tribulations as a historian and teacher, who falls into fringe theories about the gray caps and in love with one of his students, both rather deleteriously, as far as his career is concerned. The memoir also covers an interesting and eventful period of Ambergrisian history, with the rise of Martin Lake and the New Art, and later the War Between the Houses, in which a rival publishing company attempts to invade Ambergris in order to wrest market share from Hoegbotton and Sons.

What make Shriek interesting and multilayered (in addition to its problematizing some of the conclusions one might've reached about Ambergris and the Shriek siblings from reading CoSaM) is the insertion of commentary from Duncan into Janice's text, added after the fact. The story of the story is that it was found after Janice had disappeared, and that she'd written it after Duncan's own disappearance, though when found later the text included his appended commentary, though the man himself remained mysteriously gone. Along with the more literary pleasures of the narrative itself (both in terms of the history of the place and in terms of the explorations of the lived histories of the authorial characters), it's this dialogic interplay between the authorial voices that makes Shriek so compelling, deepening and enriching the story through the narrative trope of sibling rivalry and the clash and cooperation of perspective that the dialogue allows for.

Rounding out and finishing the Cycle, Finch is in many ways the least formally postmodern of the three. Part spy novel, part detective story, part thriller, Finch is far more narratively straightforward and, perhaps, mainstream (if I may use so hackneyed a term) than its predecessors, although one has to grant that setting a detective/espionage thriller in so fully realized a fantasy world is, at least at the level of genres and genre-bending, still pretty postmodern. The language and the writing are different here, echoing the classics of noir, with staccato paragraphs and sentences whose power comes from the spaces in between words, the clipped rhythms whose power and puissance lies in the building of narrative and semantic tension and the slow, discontinuous revelation of what's really going on here, and has been all along.

Finch answers a lot of questions, some of which I honestly hadn't realized I should be asking as I read the previous two books. Once again, reading it, everything you read before becomes different, is seen in a different and more revealing light, and previously settled notions about what was happening and what VanderMeer's doing with this are, if not entirely upended, then at least problematized and transformed into something far more interesting.

The story itself touches on all the conventions of the genre to which it pays homage. There are mysterious women, much larger issues at stake than are immediately apparent, and the protagonist gets beat up and knocked around more than most heroes of detective fiction. It's a fun, compelling read, a book I couldn't put down on the plane even though I was desperately sleepy, thanks to some rather uninteresting vagaries of cross-country travel that I won't bore you with.

In all, the Ambergris Cycle comprises a literary tour through three fundamental pursuits of Western Philosophy. City of Saints and Madmen is cosmology, a treatise on what the world is and how it came to be that way. Shriek: An Afterword is ontology, and more particularly existentialism, a treatment of what it's like to live in a particular time and place. And Finch, the detective story, is an exercise in epistemology, the search for answers to questions, the sussing out of what's really going on. The cycle is also, I think, a path through the labyrinth of postmodernism, which while it certainly has its value intellectually tends to spiral inwards so much that it often disappears up its own ass, which can be cute but is often unsatisfying to those outside the Academy. Much that is postmodern appears to be so for its own sake, an anarchist's bomb thrown at the foundations of Western thought and art but that fizzles out and fails to explode because in undercutting said foundations it also deconstructs itself. What really turns me on about the Ambergris Cycle is that what VanderMeer does is to chart a path out of the spiral, taking us through the wormhole at the center and both back and forward to something like conventional narrative, but whose various conceits and devices are deployed in the service of the larger work, whose purpose is itself, which is one of the defining characteristics of a true work of art.

And it's fun to read. All of it. Which is just as important as any artistic significance that I or anyone else might attribute to it.

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