There are books that are simply a joy to read; each chapter representing an ascending acrophobic’s journey — head always high and always looking forward — up the steps building with each turn of a page culminating in a capstone that takes us to a level to overlook all we tread before with satisfaction. The dangers and joys lay ahead, and once confronted, they are the past, words that are fuel for this escalating journey to convey what is simply done and not now; that which motivates each step up as straight as the crow flies.
Jeff VanderMeer’s latest offering is not such a work.
In Shriek: an Afterword, The past is not limited to fuel, it is also one of the reader’s destinations; an exploration into and ultimately an exploration of the dynamic relationship of the two siblings’ Shriek, citizens of the author’s fantastically variegated populated city of Ambergris, a purlieu fans of fantastic fiction stalk with exploratory gazes and alacritous strides, where both the phantasmagorical and stark reality intermingle and is not found only around every corner, but in between them a well. Vandermeer pulls on the threads of the mosaic tapestry that previous visitors of Ambergris will recognize; the author of The Hoegbotton’s Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, Duncan Shriek, and the art critic of the World Fantasy Award winning novella The Transformation of Martin Lake, Duncan’s sister, Janice.
The first novel-length jaunt into Ambergris is I think the intended memoir written by Janice Shriek dedicated to her now dead brother, but not only becomes as much a semi-autobiographical account of Janice’s own life — from promiscuous art cognoscente and beau monde maven to suicidal, lugubrious and unemployed junkie — but Duncan’s as well as we are reading a text he himself — not dead after all — has added anecdotes to, revealing Vandermeer’s admitted Nabokovian influence in the project. Thus, we are given the occurrences of approximately fifty years, the lives of the duo, and with it the happenings of the city they dwell in. What we get is something that could at first be conceived as a removal of the luster via tunneling our outlook on what was a setting that was beforehand more mysterious to us. Our view is a personal one, and employs a narrator most unreliable, not uniquely so, but with biases one would expect when writing of matters closely tied to one’s emotions. While memory is a recording, rarely can one’s recollection be given in a manner describable as total recall, and Janice’s more than occasional digressive narrative, and her penchant for non-linear retelling, is not at all a practice in self-indulgent writing, but a practice in common sense observation articulated with confidence. Duncan’s annotations are an elucidating presence; a historian and writer, his experience in conveying such a work is as relevant as the fact that he has intimate knowledge of what is being written. We are recounted Duncan’s life, his rise to prominence in his field, along with his fall and — at times by choice — semi-banishment from society. Duncan has two infatuations, a love for his onetime student Mary Sabon, and his passion to turn the mystery of the Gray Caps — the former and original inhabitants of Ambergris driven underground — into history experienced. Duncan’s latter obsession would lead him to journey amongst the Gray Caps themselves that changes him mentally and physically. He mutates; a Samsa-like transformation into something alien, yet familiar — still a historian, still in love, still family.
Through the retelling of the pair’s lives we will see Ambergris involved in a publishing war (and I do mean a war), be confronted with political, social, and familial truths funneled through individual perspective, the rise and fall of New Art, a classic tale of forbidden love, and how we can live at the same time, experience the same events, yet still have a very personal history different from those we share it with and be both all while an ominous yet indigenous presence somehow casts a shadow on a city and its population from beneath their very feet.
“It was dark as night yet transparent — you could see the stars through it when it got close. It was thick. It was thin. It had claws. It had fangs like polished steels. It had eyes so human and yet so various that the gaze paralyzed me. It was indescribable. Even now, trying to visualize it, I want to vomit. I want to unthink it.”
The bulk of the afterword is by Janice, and the novel’s effectiveness will be judged on how the reader takes to her. Janice is at times petty, and as one would surmise from a former gallery owner and patron to trend setting art and artists, she puts her life on display boldly and spins her life sometimes too intimately with greater occurrences — as Duncan is quick to point out. It is here where truth becomes shaded into history, the hues dependent on the individual relaying it. At some point you will no doubt grow weary of Janice during the reading, but with patience her character’s journey is indeed one that deserves to be told, even if written in her own hand. People are never as perceptive as they think they are (especially reviewers), and VanderMeer’s success is in his knowledge of this and the details. The voice he gives Janice is by no means as assured and distinctive as her brother’s — one whose life is about experiencing history — yet he gifts her with moments of sporadic clarity:
“I went for a hobbling, leaning heavily on my cane every step of the way. But when you lived in a place this long, no walk can occur solely in the present. Every street, every building, appears to you encrusted in memories, with perspectives that betray your age, your cynicism, your sentimentality, or your lack of feeling where you should feel something. Here is the sight of a quick fuck, a fumbling moment of ecstasy. There, a farewell to a departing friend. A fabled lunch with an important artist. The dust smudged window of a rival gallery, still floundering along while you are forever out of business. A community square where you once held an outdoor party, strung with paper lanterns. And if this were not enough — not relentless enough, not humbling enough — that unspeakable vision overlaying all of it, had you only the glasses to see: the mark of the gray caps on the city in a thousand signs and symbols only Duncan and I could see.”
Janice’s view becomes even more understandable when pondering how I would write such a work on my own sister. It becomes less of a writer being ignorant and blind, and more of a comment on that private part of us nobody truly knows — we ultimately live in a strange world, we just know some of the stranger’s names, and we comfort ourselves with knowledge we personally prescribe — and in the end perhaps we write them down to give tangible evidence of that validation. A eulogy, a memoir, an afterword, giving our own lives meaning by what we think we can quantify in others close to us. This is a novel that’s chosen highlight out of the numerous themes will be a personal choice. For myself, it was a story of brother and sister reintroducing themselves to the other in the past through ink and hindsight, and still not knowing each other as much as either thought, but possibly as much as one can.
In a city populated with saints and madmen, VanderMeer fictionally styles the reflection of himself the latter, as among the tenants of Voss Bender Memorial Mental Hospital during Janice’s stay was:
“A writer who would not give his name and thought he created all of us”
He is part mad scientist — a hallucinating mycologist perhaps — and part guide who revels in the journey, twisting it on every trip, with every read; a trap door as likely to lead you in the midst of Gray Caps in a subterranean cavern as it would a mundane cellar, and with the gift of making the latter as gratifying and as intrepid as the former. With the recent republications of VanderMeer’s previous work by major publishers, readers are able to pick up works like City of Saints and Madmen and Veniss Underground that gave the author a reputation that exceeded his circulation; an author who had written genuine landmark work before major publishers knew to tell us it was. With Shriek: an Afterword, we can in real time view the world of Ambergris, with Janice, “We continued to watch the city through our window, that fungi-tinged, ever changing painting”.
Whether the fugacious memory of two happy children walking through the woods by their home, or the melancholic journeys of adults; it is work of ambition that doesn’t supersede the ability to convey; an experiment in other hands, the welcomed return to the ever-dangerous Ambergris is an experience that takes more from us than just our time, and offers that our future represents as much an unknown quantity to our biographers as it does to ourselves.