Thursday, 17 October 2013

Finch and the Ambergris Stories by Jeff Vandermeer

I’ve just finished reading Finch, seemingly the last of Jeff Vandermeer’s stories set in the ornate, decadent and grotesquely fecund city of Ambergris – for the time being, anyway. Rather than a jewelled city, Ambergris is a fungal and foetid one, its hidden subterraenean race of mycological beings increasingly permeating its inhabitants and architecture with spores which bloom into new exotic and weird forms. We were first introduced to this fantastic locale in City of Saints and Madmen, a collection whose stories were presented in the form of histories with extensive and eccentrically discursive footnotes, opinionated biographies, cultural and biological monographs, tales published in Ambergisian magazines (the Burning Leaves journal in this case), souvenir booklets (‘in celebration of the 300th Festival of the Freshwater Squid), art reviews, medical reports and a final glossary and appendix on imaginary fonts.

In these varied pieces we learn about the foundation of the city by Cappan John Manzikert, the ‘whaler-cum-pirate’; hear of the original gray cap inhabitants, the mysterious fungal race who are driven below ground, their city of Cinsorium razed to the ground; and of their establishment of a labyrinthine city beneath the city, from which they make ghostly forays aboveground. We learn of the terrible catastrophe known as The Silence in which 25,000 people disappear without trace due to some inexplicable metaphysical machination on the part of the gray caps. We find out about the intelligent freshwater squid, the myths which surround it and the annual festival which celebrates its cultural importance. We discover something of the Truffidian religion, and read about its most famous proponent, the monk Samuel Tonsure, who disappears in the underground realms of the gray caps, leaving behind a journal filled with tantalizing descriptions of their alien world. We also meet various of the artistic personalities who crowd the Albumuth Boulevard, generally engaging in fierce and occasionally murderous factional disputes: the legendary opera composer Voss Bender (who gives his name to the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute), the painter Martin Lake and the writer Nicholas Sporlender.

The atmosphere of florid excess and incipient decay or collapse links Ambergris with the decadent fin de siecle literature of Yellow Book pages and French symbolists, and with the M.John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, which draw on similar sources. This air of elaborate exoticism and self-consciously extravagant gesture is reflected in the wonderful names to be found throughout City of Saints and Madmen. We come across the art collector Maxwell Bibble, Dvorak Niebelung the poisonous dwarf (distant cousins to M.John Harrison’s gleefully violent and vulgar dwarves Tomb, the Grand Cairo, Rotgob and the clown Kiss-O-Suck, themselves derived from Aubrey Beardsley's twisted homonculi), the inventor Stephen Bacilus, Richard Krokus and Maxwell Glaring, and the artist Roger Mandible. The change in the nature of the city which has come about by the time of Finch, the post-decadent period of occupation and destitution after the deluge has come (literally in certain quarters) is evident in the truncation of these extravagant names into monosyllabic mumbles. In this bleak and defeated city, the characters now have names like our eponymous anti-hero, his partner Wyte, the criminal spy Stark and his goon Bosun.

Books, publishing, writing and reading are central concerns throughout the series. The rival publishing houses Hoegbotten and Frankwrithe & Lewden are a dominant force in the city, and eventually wage full scale war against each other (the so-called War of the Houses). One of the grandest buildings Manzikert and his crew come across in their initial exploration of the gray cap city is the old library, and it is here that the conflagration which destroys Cinsorium is started. The Borges Bookshop, central to the literary life of Ambergris, acknowledges one abiding influence upon the self-reflective concern with books and writing and the bibliographical play within the stories. The Strange Case of X nods to another influence – turn the X into a K and Kafka appears. He’s an inspiration in terms of his fiction and of his writing life, as revealed in his letters. In the X story, a writer who is the subject of a psychiatric report imagines that he is the creator of the popular fictional city of Ambergris. It is of course our world which turns out to be the improbable fantasy, the product of an overheated imagination. Or perhaps both worlds are equally unreal, the whole notion of the real provisional and illusory. There is an uncanny feeling in all of the books of characters being written, taking on roles created for them which are always subject to revision (or editing out), and of these characters being, on some level, aware of this discomfiting sense of invisible control.

All of the stories following on from The Strange Case of X are presented as papers and effects which the anonymous patient has gathered together and perhaps authored. Learning to Leave the Flesh is all about the transformative power of writing, and is permeated with a dizzying reflection on its own composition, of the unfolding process of its writing and revision occurring independently of any authorial control. In The Release of Belacqua, the actor is doomed endlessly to repeat the role with which he becomes indelibly associated until there is no separation between the authentic individual and the written character. The Man Who Had No Eyes includes a premonition of future catastrophe in which the gray caps have taken over the city once more, a vision which has come to pass by the time of Finch. The second book, Shriek, takes the form of a confessional celebrity autobiography written by the art collector Janice Shriek. Her failed attempt to erase herself through suicide, she symbolically does so in telling the story of her own life. She ends up writing more about her brother Duncan, an adventurer and iconoclastic historian. She doesn’t even have the last word in her own book. It contains regular intercessions by Duncan made after her disappearance (and prior to his), correcting her versions of events and adding a sardonic second authorial voice which makes the narrative doubly untrustworthy. In Finch, characters have multiple aliases, and Finch himself turns out to have concealed personas (concealed even from himself) over which his current self has been written. The personalities of the recently dead can be imposed on the living through the consumption of fungal memory bulbs which fruit on the deceased body. These can take a person over, rewriting and revising a particular character. Finch’s main source of information for the cases he works on (he’s a policeman) is a self-appointed librarian called Rebecca Rathven. She is the custodian of the books she has gathered together from all over the city and filed away in her flooded rooms in the basement of Finch’s building. It’s a sunken library of the subconscious, a passage towards the rear leading off into unknown darkness. We get to travel down it towards the end of the novel). So Vandermeer’s tales of Ambergris begin with one damaged library, and end with another.

Finch follows the trend of casting each new story in a different literary form. This one is the hardboiled detective novel or police thriller, ‘fungal noir’ as Richard K Morgan memorably coins it in his back cover blurb. All the elements of noir are here: the battered, world weary but at heart noble investigator (Finch, whose father was called John Marlowe Crossley, underlining his literary heritage); the chaotic world in which the moral order is not so easy to classify; the blurred distinction between criminals and authorities; the femme fatale who comes into the detective’s life but remains independent and inscrutable (Sintra, who drifts in and out of his flat, never staying long enough for any lasting intimacy to develop); the loyal female companion who is always there to tend the wounds of regular beatings; and the partner to whom our hero is unswervingly loyal, even when he gets into trouble or falls into temptation. This is Wyte, who runs into a trap in the course of a former case and becomes infected with the spores from a dead man. He manages to dispel the invading personality from his mind, but the fungi spread through his body, flushing his skin with patches of purple and green and gradually transforming him into something other than human. He has become what is known as a Partial, a detested breed who are halfway between states and considered inherently untrustworthy by those people who remain unaffected. There is also the unsympathetic boss, in this case the gray cap Finch knows as Heretic, his lazy approximation of the name he can’t be bothered to learn. And there is his cat, Feral, which he continues to worryabout no matter how desperate his own situation becomes. This is reminiscent of Elliott Gould’s dishevelled 70s Marlowe in Robert Altman’s film version of The Long Goodbye. The language of the novel is clipped, sentences short and often lacking definite or indefinite articles or personal pronouns. Everything is held in, kept close and secret. It’s the repressed, enervated language of defeat and paranoia.

The Ambergris of Finch is wholly transformed from the city whose rich culture we enjoyed discovering in the earlier stories. This is a city of occupation, the gray caps having risen and imposed their authority on those who survived their terrible onslaught. Red mushroom trees sprout from the streets and dispense narcotising drugs to keep the populace quietly addicted. There are work camps set up on islands in the delta towards the outskirts of the city, and the debris of war is left scattered throughout the ruins, gradually rusting as it is covered with fungal growths. Finch observes ‘the petrified snout of a tank or two. Ripped up at treads. Collapsed train cars pitted with scars and holes’. It’s reminiscent of the marooned relics of the outside world found in the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker.

Finch is investigating a locked room case involving the bodies of a man and a gray cap, the latter cut in two, and both of whom seem to have fallen from a great height. As the case progresses, he becomes more and more mired in the politics and metaphysics of the occupation. He comes across criminal overlords, assured in their grip over the city; rebel groups and Partial quislings, both ruthless in pursuing their ends; and he even has an encounter with the legendary Lady in Blue, the semi-mythical symbol of the resistance which disappeared into what has come to be known as the Hoegbotten and Frankwrithe Zone many years ago. As the novel develops, noirish elements shade into metaphysical horror of a Lovecraftian variety. Reality begins to disintegrate and become malleable. Finch falls out of the world for a while and is taken to other dimensions. All seem to converge on the ‘ruined fortress of Zamilon’, which proves to be a nexus of doorways to other realities (‘it exists in our world, but it also exists in many other worlds simultaneously’). The two adjoining towers which the gray are building by the side of the delta on the edge of the city seem to have a similar purpose, forming a flickering gateway to many elsewheres. The sense of metaphysical horror, of reality being pulled out of shape, is embodied by the skery, the terrifying creature which, in true Lovecraftian style, cannot be adequately described in terms which the human mind can encompass. The gray caps use them (and possibly create them) as enforcers, monstrous bulldogs of sorts. Its maw offers Finch ‘an image of an endless field of dim stars, one by one extinguished’. A vision of an all-engulfing void far worse than death.

If the gray caps new edifices sound like it an allusion to the twin towers, it’s almost certainly intentional. Echoes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and occupations abound. Finch finds a fragment of a note in the dead man’s hand at the start of the novel, with the words ‘Bellum omnium contra omnes’ written on it. He doesn’t understand it because it’s not in a language which exists in his world. It’s a Latin phrase meaning the war of all against all. From the start there are hints at links between the worlds, which had already been alluded to in The Strange Case of X. In M.John Harrison’s Viriconium books there are also connections between the fantastic and the real. In In Viriconium, the boozily boorish gods of the city, the Barley Brothers, make reference to having been thrown out of Birmingham and Woverhampton, whilst in the short story A Young Man’s Guide to Viriconium, several desperate dreamers attempt to make the passage from the real into the imagined, all to disastrous effect.

The parallels with occupations in the recent history of our world become increasingly explicit as the story moves towards its climax. Finch undergoes drawn out torture in an ‘unofficial’ interrogation by a Partial, one of the gray caps’ native collaborators. We also learn that the face of Finch’s father, who achieved notoriety as a supposedly traitorous double agent during the Wars of the Houses, was one of those printed on a deck of playing cards depicting the Most Wanted in the wake of the conflict. The police station is blown up by a suicide bomber, the likes of which were regularly used by the rebels in the early days of the occupation. The fortress of Zamilon where armies from divergent realities face each other is located in a desert landscape, the remains of a shattered oriental fantasy out of the Arabian Nights. The forces gathered on the plain are described in terms of unutterable otherness, things whose physical difference betokens a mentality which can never be comprehended or understood. Finch glimpses ‘furtive movement out there. Occluding the fires at times. A suggestion of long, wide limbs. Of misshapen heads’. Our reality may be one of the others connecting with this nexus, or perhaps one of the landscapes which flicker across the scenes shimmering between the towers. These towers are described as if they were alive, an organic machine akin to the one which Duncan Shriek had come across underground. They were ‘in mottled green, with darker blues writhing through’ and ‘seemed to flutter and be alive. Portions like lungs. Breathing.’

Some of the mysteries raised in earlier stories are given answers, although they tend to be open-ended, leading to further and more fundamental questions about the nature of things. We re-encounter characters from previous books in one form or another. Duncan Shriek and Samuel Tonsure reappear. Finch even voices a bit of literary criticism in his mind regarding Shriek, a copy of which he is lent by Rathven. He reflects that ‘he found Janice an exasperating narrator. She hid things, lied, delayed the truth’. It’s as if he regards her as a recalcitrant witness in his case. We also hear again of the monstrous metaphysical mechanism, a vast machine incorporating living beings as components, which Duncan Shriek had described, and which he speculated had been the accidental cause of the mass disappearances of The Silence. A faulty connection or sudden power surge accidentally deflecting a more long-term and permanent project. This may finally be reaching its end with the completion of the towers.

Finch ends up bruised and bloodied but alive, a small man caught between opposing forces who would both manipulate him and use him to further their own ends. Like Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler novels, he tries to behave honourably in a world in which the moral order has become impossibly convoluted. His ability to act according to his own will is severely limited as he is caught up in the tidal sweep of historical circumstance and a metaphysical shift the nature of which he can barely comprehend. His role is ultimately summed up by the fungally encoded and replicated spirit of Duncan Shriek, who tells him ‘you’re a man who did the best he could in impossible circumstances. That’s all’. It defines the limits of heroism in this tough-minded fantasy.


Anonymous said...

Just a note that M. John Harrison is only (one of several) influences on the Martin Lake story--and like Harrison I was much more indebted to French and English Decadent writers--a primary influence. Otherwise, not really very much at all--and certainly not on either Shriek or on Finch.

I really appreciate the thoughtful and in-depth review, though. - Jeff VanderMeer

Jez Winship said...

It's a fair point - and I've therefore tweaked that sentence to remove my clumsy claim to a 'primary influence' which doesn't exist. A secondary one at best.
Thanks for responding to the review, and for writing these remarkable books.