Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ambergris [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeff VanderMeer, a combined volume with City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris is named for the fantasy city in which the three component volumes transpire, one that compares to the Well Built City of Jeffrey Ford and the Viriconium of M. John Harrison. This “New Weird” setting is introduced in a kaleidoscopic fashion through a collection of shorter pieces in City of Saints and Madmen, each written in a different documentary register. One of these, “The Strange Case of X” involves some transformations of veridicality reminiscent of the fantasizing technique in Paul Park’s Roumania and the John Crowley stories “Conversation Hearts” and “Anosognosia.”
There is a sort of talmudic textuality to the second book Shriek: An Afterword. Janice Shriek claims to be writing a biography of her brother Duncan, and she includes excerpts from his journals. But he has reviewed and annotated her MS, although she seems to think he is already dead. Another editorial layer is added at the end. The “Afterword” is (at least initially) supposed to be end-matter to Duncan Shriek’s “History of Ambergris” pamphlet that forms a portion of City of Saints and Madmen. In the course of the biography-cum-confession the reader is introduced to a tension between “Nativist” denial and the Shrieks’ acceptance of human contingency and the mysterious mycelial agenda.
The third book Finch is a sort of noir detective story with an espionage substructure and Cronenberg horror esthetics. It reminded me of Mieville’s The City and the City, and I also detected something shaped like the corpse of Fleming’s Casino Royale with psychedelic mushrooms sprouting all over it. It is divided into seven long chapters named for the days of the week over which the story takes place, and I serendipitously fell into the rhythm of reading them on the corresponding days of the last week of April.
This Farrar, Straus and Giroux omnibus reprint is a beautiful book, and it provides a long and satisfying read. I did take pauses between each of the three books within. I gather that some editions of Ambergris: City of Saints and Madmen under its own cover have additional content not included here, and I would be happy to spend time reading that at some point.