Friday, 9 May 2008

City of Saints and Madmen

I’m utterly in love with this book. I’d read plenty of reviews and interviews with Jeff VanderMeer before finally picking up a copy of the Bantam trade edition, so I was reading with considerably high expectations. Fortunately, VanderMeer didn’t disappoint.

I think the key to understanding and enjoying City of Saints is to not ever, at any stage, to think of the book as an anthology linked by the city of Ambergris. This is not simply a collection of linked stories, but rather a novel of versions. You are reading a novel, but one whose component parts have been separated for closer inspection. Reading ‘The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris’ is like getting all the background filler material in a standard novel, only that here it’s delivered as a pseudo-history, complete with footnotes. The other three novellas that comprise the book’s first half are magnificently strange, each with a unique flavour, with ‘The Strange Case of X’ being so overwhelmingly self-conscious (where does the writer end and the character begin?) that it ends before you feel it’s begun, so caught up are you in trying to unravel what’s fiction and what reality.

Don’t mistake it for yet another dull attempt at surrealism though. Surrealism works because it subverts or abstracts a shared notion of our ‘normal’ reality – a kind of acute slippage between the audience and the artist. Yet reading City of Saints is, in many ways, like reading Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books – there’s nothing supernatural or terribly fantastic about the city of Ambergris, only that it’s very strange and it’s reality, as C.N. Manlove said about Peake’s work, has no connection with our sphere of possibility.[1]

The Appendix picks up where ‘The Strange Case of X’ leaves off. It is purported to be a collection of personal effects found in X’s cell at the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute. Again, since they are all so intertwined and referential to each other, these need to be read in their entirety to enjoy the full effect. Personal highlights from the Appendix include ‘The Cage,’ with its very scary ending that would make an excellent M. Night Shayamalan-style suspense thriller, ‘In the Hours After Death,’ with its strangely bittersweet account of what happens after death, ‘The Exchange,’ which is just strange (I love how this is actually set during the usual riots associated with the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, but this old couple is calmly enjoying dinner and), and ‘Learning to Leave the Flesh,’ the struggle of finding the right words to express a death, to capture something about the essence of a person’s life, moved me very deeply, having attempted a similar exercise recently in regards to a passing in my own family. Expressing such loss creatively, especially if it is a close to home, is extremely difficult, and VanderMeer approaches the task in such a way that the self-consciousness of the piece becomes an expression of his own struggle to find the right words – we can sense the author at work.

I haven’t seen the hardcover edition, but as I understand it the Bantam edition (pictured above) contains the same material. I’m not super-amazed at the interior layout though – sometimes the text looks too squished on the page, as if it needed more space. I don’t know how it appears in the hardcover, but I know its has larger dimensions so I imagine it is much better laid out. The hardcover art is much more striking as well, and I’ll be tracking down a copy as soon as some spare $$ miraculously find their way into my wallet.

A highly recommended book, and one that should also prove that fantasy literature needn’t be all about hobbits and elves, nor about too-strange an events or characters that the reader can’t engage with.

[1] C.N. Manlove. ‘On the Nature of Fantasy’ in Schlobin, Roger C. (ed) The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press), 1982. p. 18

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