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Author Topic: Fiction Review: "City of Saints and Madmen" by Jeff VanderMeer  (Read 1042 times)

mattormeg

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Fiction Review: "City of Saints and Madmen" by Jeff VanderMeer
« on: September 23, 2006, 12:01:20 PM »
The Real VanderMeer, an introduction by Michael Moorcock.
Dradin, In Love.
The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris
The Transformation of Martin Lake
The Strange Case of X

Appendix:
A Letter from Dr. V. to Dr. Simpkin
X's Note
King Squid
The Hoegbotton Family History
The Cage
In the Hours After Death
A Note from Dr. V. to Dr. Simpkin
The Man Who Had No Eyes
The Exchange
Learning to Leave the Flesh
The Ambergris Glossary

Jeff VanderMeer is one of my favorite authors. Whenever I want to get lost in a book, and I mean truly lost - like machete and compass lost - I choose his work.

Jeff is best known for his ongoing series of stories about the fictional city of Ambergris, a truly astounding place haunted by painters, madmen, murderers and the ever-mysterious Mushroom Dwellers: a secretive, subterranean race of people who roam the streets by night, collecting refuse for the exotic fungi they cultivate.

The most accessible entry to Ambergris can be found through Jeff’s novel “City of Saints and Madmen.” “City” is a sprawling work, using a variety of literary formats to lead the reader in and out of the history of Ambergris, through the lives of some of its notable residents, and ultimately into the mind of the author himself.

The first half of the book consists of four novellas:

The first novella, “Dradin, in Love” tells the story of a missionary with a dark secret who, after spending months in the jungle, returns to the city with his religious aspirations bashed and his pockets empty. Looking for work, instead he finds himself in love, and very nearly a victim of the city’s violent, debauched “Festival of the Freshwater Squid.”

The second, “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris,” recounts the history of the city, one of madness, fanaticism and murder. A party of would-be conquerors descends deep into the subterranean world of the Mushroom Dwellers, never to return, their maddening story told through a recovered journal.

In the third, “The Transformation of Martin Lake” an artist of middling talent receives an invitation to a beheading at the behest of mysterious benefactors. What happens when he arrives changes the life of the city forever.

The fourth novella, “The Strange Case of X” presents the story of a madman author who insists that Ambergris is not real, and in fact, is a product of his imagination. A victim of his delusions, he insists on his belief that he is from a mythical city called “Chicago.”

The second half of the book is ostensibly an appendix, but in actuality is a collection of short stories disguised as journal entries, natural histories, and works by various famous “authors” who live and work in Ambergris. Some of the titles include, “King Squid,” “Learning to Leave the Flesh,” and “The Man Who had No Eyes.” Each story refers to, and supports, the prior four novellas, with many of the events and characters of each the subjects.

VanderMeer is a virtuoso writer, his work is at times witty, shocking, hilarious and even frightening. Stylistically, VanderMeer is on his own, and reads something like a cross between Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

He plays with genre and style, creating his own language of self-referential footnotes, journal entries and mesmerizing fiction that beguiles the reader into wishing these books would never end, while simultaneously exhausting the reader's capacity to assimilate these new and wonderful words. The result is a dazed sort of satiety.

The city of Ambergris, and its surrounding milieu, offers a rich panoply of plot hooks and resources tailor made for the gamemaster looking for something a little “unusual” for his campaign. I could easily imagine a steampunk campaign using Ambergris as a base.

Characters could descend deep into the Earth in pursuit of Mushroom Dwellers, dodge freshwater squid while exploring glittering shipwrecks on the river Moth, lead religious pilgrimages from the city’s Religious Quarter, lead lives of squalor as thieves and cutthroats in the labyrinthine back-alleys of Ambergris, or even engage in stories of intrigue and pettifoggery among the fabulously rich and decadent of the city’s elite.

While VanderMeer's work isn't for every reader, you'll enjoy it if you love post-modern fantasy, surrealism and the occasional vacation from the mundane.

To learn more about Ambergris, and Jeff VanderMeer, I conducted an interview with the author. I have attached it to this review.
 

Slothrop

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City of Saints and Madmen
« Reply #1 on: September 24, 2006, 02:24:50 AM »
While I don't have very long to post right now, I just thought I'd give kudos on the review of City of Saints and Madmen.  Nice to see that it's still getting reviewed and positively too.

It's also nice to see that I'm not alone in picking up something of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in some of Jeff's writing.  I'd also say there's a good bit of Jorge Luis  Borges and Vladimir Nabokov in there as well.

Two questions:

1) Have you had a chance to check out the not-really-a-sequel, but-still-a-follow-up novel Shriek: An Afterword yet?  It's the next major read on my list, so I can't say anything about it yet.

2) Your review says that you conducted an interview with Vandermeer, but I don't see a link or an attachment to such.  Am I missing it somewhere?

Oops, nevermind #2 there.  I just checked out your blog and see the interview there.
 

mattormeg

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City of Saints and Madmen
« Reply #2 on: September 24, 2006, 11:06:28 AM »
Quote from: Slothrop
While I don't have very long to post right now, I just thought I'd give kudos on the review of City of Saints and Madmen.  Nice to see that it's still getting reviewed and positively too.

It's also nice to see that I'm not alone in picking up something of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in some of Jeff's writing.  I'd also say there's a good bit of Jorge Luis  Borges and Vladimir Nabokov in there as well.

Two questions:

1) Have you had a chance to check out the not-really-a-sequel, but-still-a-follow-up novel Shriek: An Afterword yet?  It's the next major read on my list, so I can't say anything about it yet.

2) Your review says that you conducted an interview with Vandermeer, but I don't see a link or an attachment to such.  Am I missing it somewhere?

Oops, nevermind #2 there.  I just checked out your blog and see the interview there.


I actually started "Shriek" yesterday. I'll let you know if it's any good.

I had attempted to attach the file to the interview, but it looks like I goofed that one up. I'll just reprint it here.

Here goes:
What do you think of the state of fantastic fiction today? Is it living up to its potential?

That's a difficult question. Some writers still seem framed by the paradigm of fiction as product rather than art. Some writers still seem more interested in the trappings of being a writer than actually producing anything that will last more than 15 minutes. But that's always been the way it is. Writers are strange people, eccentric and sometimes very messed up. None of us are going to live up to our potential, in a way. That's the frustration. Of seeing something so clearly in your mind and then finding words to be a poor substitute, at times, for that initial vision. I do think there are many interesting and idiosyncratic writers traveling through the world today, and the best of them, to my mind, have absurdist, surrealist,fabulist, or experimental tendencies. Mark Danielewski, Jeffrey Ford, Leena Krohn, David Mitchell, Catherynne Valente, Theodora Goss, Stepan Chapman, Kelly Link, Shelley Jackson, Conrad Williams, Alan DeNiro, just to name a few that come to mind. There are many many more. Heck, even Dan Simmons, who comes from an older generation and may seem more "genre" than "cross genre"has just written The Terror, a surreal and terrifyingly strange novel that'scoming out in January.

If there's something that concerns me it is, in general, a sense from the younger generation of American writers that they are turning inward and notfacing or addressing in any meaningful way the issues of our times. Within genre, I mean.


Is genre a hindrance - a limitation of where a writer may go - or a foundation upon which limitless growth may be built?

Both at the same time. Genre institutions provide a safe playground as a beginner--a bay of calm from the sharks out in the deeper depths. So you can advance far in a short period of time. But, ultimately, I find that it can be a straitjacket. It's not about denying you're a fantasy writer. It's about saying "I'm a fiction writer." Period. And to accept all influences, no matter where they come from. And to never limit yourself because you are
working within a limited paradigm. Anything that keeps you from taking chances or allows you to enter a comfort level of sorts is bad for you as a writer. Genre is one of those things that can do this, even as it is helpful. The main thing is: do you leap? Or do you kind of crawl along? I'd rather leap and find I'm 20 stories up and falling fast than hug the ground.

You seem to enjoy appropriating the literary tools of researchers, such as manuscripts and footnotes. Is this an effort to lend to the verisimilitude of your creations, or do you advocate a scientific approach to plumbing the depth of one's imagination?

It's more that I think that much of the nonfiction we read is hopelessly partisan and distorted by the writer's personality and background. And that I therefore think we can use nonfiction forms in a fiction arena in a way that's interesting in terms of character, plot, and other things of that nature. It's also hard to deny the reality of an imaginary place if you're holding an artifact from it in your hands.

Are recurring elements such as squids, fungi and dwarves part of your own personal mythology? In essence, do you find something personally significant or totemic about these things?

I love the strange things about the world and the mundane things we take for granted that are still, in some ways, odd. That's all. I wouldn't say dwarves are a recurring theme, though, or that they are part of my response in the first sentence.

If you had to leave your home quickly, and could only save three books from your personal library, what would they be?

“Pale Fire” by Nabokov. “Jerusalem Poker” by Edward Whittemore. And then I'd be hard-pressed to decide. Crap. It'd be hard. If it came down to it, I suppose I would take “The Chess Garden” by Brooks Hansen. But tomorrow it might be a second Nabokov. Or “The World According to Garp”. Or “A Soldier of the Great War”. Or...I don't know. I would probably not be able to leave my home quickly.


Here Goes: