What a long strange trip City of Saints and Madmen is! Jeff VanderMeer’s first book about the city of Ambergris is a tour de force of imagination and style.
It’s a hard book to review, though. First of all, what is it? It’s not a novel. Is it a collection of short stories? Maybe, although some of the pieces included in City of Saints and Madmen are not stories, and in some cases, the stories seep in around the edges of the prose. Some of the prose pieces here are straightforward, be they fantasy or outright horror; some of the stories delight by imitating secret manuscripts hidden in other documents.
Swirling through all of this are images of the beautiful and sinister city, Ambergris, built on the shores of the river Moth; Ambergris, with its religious quarter and its battling religions, its larger-than-life composer celebrity Voss Bender, and most mysteriously, its colorful, insidious, deadly fungi. Ambergris is an imaginary city in an imaginary world, festooned with spangles of cultural references from our world: the Borges bookstore, for instance.
“Draden, in Love” explores the life of an unsuccessful monk, who becomes instantly infatuated with a woman he sees in an office window. On one level, this is a story of a naïve young man led astray by a street-smart villain; but it is really an introduction to the city with its serpentine alleyways, its enigmatic “mushroom dwellers,” and the lovely and possibly deadly Festival of the Freshwater Squid. On yet another level, this is the story of Draden’s gradual acknowledgment of the truth of his own past. Draden’s self-realization keeps pace with his trek through the darkened city, following the dwarf who assures him he is leading Draden to his lady-love. This is not the case at all, and Draden soon experiences the darker side of the Festival.
“The Transformation of Martin Lake” follows a gifted painter in the city in the days immediately following the death of the famous composer Voss Bender. The narrative is interspersed with passages from a commentary written by Janice Shriek, a prominent Ambergresian art critic and gallery owner. Readers will recognize the last name because we have read a “pamphlet” written by her historian brother, Duncan Shriek. Lake has received an “Invitation to a Beheading.” His friend Raffe urges him to attend, surmising that it may be a private, probably pornographic, commission that could be quite lucrative. Lake decides to go to the assignation, but is harried by a devastating dream whose symbolism he cannot decipher.
Writers love to write about painters. Partly this is because writers are fascinated by the creative process, and also because though painting and writing are nothing alike they share some vocabulary. Painters are concerned with perspective, background, composition and imagery, and so are writers, in a very different way. This story glows when VanderMeer is describing Lake’s creative process and his quest to capture a certain quality of light. It gets intense and terrifying when Lake attends “the beheading.” The story reads like a nightmare itself at times, concretely surreal, if that makes sense.
Deeper into the book, “The Cage” is a detailed, shivery horror story that sheds still more light on the two central mysteries of Ambergris: the Silence, which happened in the past, and the role of the “mushroom dwellers” in the current-day city. “The Strange Case of X” is difficult to discuss without spoiling it, but like “Martin Lake,” part of this story is an exploration of the creative process. In it, VanderMeer uses a dialogue technique that he will expand in Finch in order to create suspense.
“The History of the City of Ambergris” is presented by Duncan Shriek, a famous historian. It isn’t exactly clear why this honored scholar agreed to pen a tourist guidebook. Shriek’s tone is factual and acerbic, and the reader must read the footnotes. Shriek explains the human settlement of Ambergris, and how the “Cappan” Manzikert drove out the “gray caps” or mushroom dwellers who inhabited a city they called Cinsorium. Manzikert and his wife Sophia settle the town and rename it. Manzikert’s desire to exterminate the “gray caps” leads to a devastating consequence for him. Seventy years later, the ruler of Ambergris takes the city fleet and 5,000 people out of the city to hunt the freshwater squid. When the fleet returns, the 25,000 other human residents of Ambergris are gone, never seen again. This is the Silence, a mystery that reverberates through this book and subsequent books.
“King Squid” is a scholarly treatise about the freshwater squid, written by Frederick Madnok, a respected amateur squidologist. His tragic, personal story is revealed through the endnotes and the extensive bibliography.
When I finished the book, my impression was that strong women characters were at a minimum. As I thought back, I realized that wasn’t exactly true. Rebecca, in “The Cage,” is nothing more than an exotic love object, and Draden’s inamorata is, except for one scene near the end, only seen through a window. There are, however, several strong women, mostly partners to strong men: Sophia, Cappan Manzikert’s pirate queen wife; and Irene, an aristocratic wife, who shows strength and resourcefulness during the Silence. Madnok’s treatise relates the tale of a married pair of scientists, and the character of “X” talks a lot about his accomplished wife in a session with his psychiatric interrogator.
It’s unquestionable that VanderMeer is an imaginative genius, but he is also a virtuoso of tone. Each one of these tales has a tone that matches its theme. Shriek’s guidebook is ironic and distanced; Madnok is sincere and sad; “The Transformation of Martin Lake” is painterly, also capturing a sense of 1920s Paris. “The Cage” captures strange beauty and horror. The Spectra edition is enhanced by exquisite artwork and some beautiful illuminated lettering.
City of Saints and Madmen rewards the patient reader; if nothing else, readers must read endnotes and footnotes. At the end, the reader will not know what caused the Silence, or what the motives of the mushroom dwellers are. You will feel, though, like you’ve been visiting a strange and dangerous city, leafing through the books you purchased at Borges Books, on Albemuth Avenue, as you wait out the Festival of the Freshwater Squid.