A Capsule Review of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints & Madmen [Prime, 2002],
with Annotations (Including a Brief Look at The Libraries of Thought
& Imagination [pocketbooks, 2001] 1)
By Claude Lalumière
City of Saints & Madmen3
is a mosaic6 of fluid7
a revised10 version11
of the earlier12
City of Saints & Madmen: The Book of Ambergris13
(Cosmos Books,14 200115)
and a host16 of other
both the city19 of
Ambergris20 and the
stories21 that claim22
to describe23 its
a masterful27 novel28
of fantasy29 fiction.30
It is a portal31 into
another world,32 the
world33 of VanderMeer's34
and textured,37 decadent38
and decaying.39 The
book40 is a beautiful41
work42 of art,43
both as physical44
object45 and as text.46
It is also its own subject47:
perhaps no more than the fancy48
of a madman.49 (See
1. The Libraries of Thought &
is a charming little book from Scottish publisher pocketbooks.
It is an anthology of meditations, memoirs, verse, fictions, photographs,
and illustrations that seek to capture and communicate the profound effect
that books and libraries (mostly personal libraries) can have on people.
There are no standout pieces, but it's playful, unpretentious, and filled
with love (yet delightfully devoid of saccharine sentimentality). Jeff
VanderMeer contributes capsule reviews of imaginary books by Angela Carter
and Alasdair Gray, the latter of whom penned one of City of Saints &
Madmen's most important literary antecedents (see note 35).
2. There are at least two websites
dedicated to Jeff VanderMeer:
Jeff VanderMeer: The Official Website and VanderWorld.
Are these proof of VanderMeer's existence? (See note 16.)
3. Not to be confused with City
of Saints & Madmen: The Book of Ambergris (see note 13).
"is a new publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels, collections,
5. 2002 is already turning out to be
an exciting year for SF and fantasy. I expect my review of the year to
be jam-packed with great books.
6. I have been arguing in favour of
the more evocative term "mosaic" (in lieu of the ugly and somewhat derogatory
"fix-up") to describe books made up of previously published stories that
form a whole more unified than the standard story collection. These can
range from collections of stories all set in the same universe without
particularly interacting with each other (such as Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga
and Paul Di Filippo's
Ribofunk) to episodic novels (such as Robert
Silverberg's The World Inside and Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers)
to complex innovative structures (such as those found in Ursula Le Guin's
Always Coming Home or J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition) in which
the different sections interact with each other to form a whole that is
exponentially greater than the sum of its parts. Jeff VanderMeer's
of Saints & Madmen is a brilliant example of this third type. See
also note 28.
7. "Fluid" is used here as a metaphor
(see note 11). The text is not in liquid form.
8. Although every item in City of
Saints & Madmen is fiction, not all its components are easily categorized
as "stories." "The Hoegbotten Guide to the Early History of Ambergris by
Duncan Shriek" reprints the text of a tourist guide/history book published
by Ambergris entrepreneurs Hoegbotten & Sons and penned by one of the
city's most famous scholars. "AppendiX" reproduces, in facsimile form,
official correspondence pertaining to the patient in "The Strange Case
of X" as well as documents found in his room, including "King Squid", a
zoological pamphlet self-published by F. Madnok. Considering the wealth
of such imaginary documents within City of Saints & Madmen,
it is not much of a stretch to speculate that Ambergris's Borges Bookstore
was thus named by VanderMeer as an homage to literature's most renowned
creator of imaginary texts (see note 35).
9. This hardcover edition contains
twice as much text as Cosmos Books' City of Saints & Madmen: The
Book of Ambergris. In keeping with the facsimile nature of the documents
in the second half of the book (see note 8), "AppendiX"
is not paginated (some of its parts retain the pagination of the original
sources, although these sources may be no more than figments of X's imagination,
or perhaps VanderMeer's).
10. All four novellas that comprise
the Cosmos Books trade paperback have been revised for this edition.
11. In "The Strange Case of X", X
who may or may not be VanderMeer is in possession of yet another version
of this book, subtly retitled City of Saints and Madmen. The text
of City of Saints and Madmen changes as X's perceptions of Ambergris
evolve; and so it is with VanderMeer and City of Saints & Madmen.
See also notes 22 and 47.
12. The city of Ambergris described
in this earlier version is subtly different from the one portrayed in the
new edition (see notes 10 and 11).
13. "The Book of Ambergris" is the
title of the first part of the hardcover City of Saints & Madmen;
it is roughly half of the book.
Books is a print-on-demand publisher of SF, fantasy, horror, and crime
fiction with an impressive (and growing) catalog.
15. Knowing that a new edition with
additional material was in the works, I put off reading VanderMeer's book
last year. Otherwise, it would have been included in my review of the
books of 2001.
16. Who, if you'll allow me an awkward
pun, is the host for this trip to Ambergris? X? Dr. V? Dr. Simpkin? Duncan
Shriek? F. Madnok ? (The jacket spine of City of Saints & Madmen
includes a disturbingly revealing self-portrait by Madnok.) Nicholas Sporlender
(author of "In the Hours after Death", one of the documents in X's possession)?
The enigmatic writer Sirin? (Could Sirin and X be one and the same?) Jeff
VanderMeer? Or are all these others aspects of VanderMeer? Is VanderMeer
a figment of his own imagination? Or was he dreamed up by X? (In the author
photo on the flap, "Simon Mills" stands in for "VanderMeer"; is "VanderMeer"
no more than another conceit in the elaborate fictional charade that is
17. This "other material" is not limited
to the extensive "AppendiX". The front and back jacket contain a short
vignette in which the book City of Saints & Madmen (yet another
version? see notes 11 and 47)
plays a part. The copy on the front and back flaps, ostensibly a short
biography of "Jeff VanderMeer", is in fact yet another fiction describing
the life of a fictional VanderMeer. Is there any other kind of VanderMeer?
Even the spine contains illustrations and copy that help further understand/decipher
18. Another pun. The text is illuminated
in a style evoking (but not imitating) medieval books. These illuminations
reflect the peculiar character of Ambergris. See note 44.
19. VanderMeer is at the vanguard
of a select number of contemporary fantasy writers who have created baroque
imaginary cities imbued with as much if not more life than any character.
Other such fantasists include China
Miéville (New Crobuzon) and Paul
Di Filippo (the linear city).
20. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary
tells us that ambergris is "a strong-smelling waxlike secretion of the
intestine of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used
in perfume manufacture." "The Ambergris Glossary" (from "AppendiX") claims:
"In folklore, a marbled substance often found on the seashore and thought
to be a 'sea mushroom.' Actually produced in the intestine of whales, ambergris
can only be created when partially-digested squid beaks are present in
the whale's system. Whalers long sought ambergris for use as an aphrodisiac,
in perfumes, and as a folk medicine. Since the founding of the city of
Ambergris, however, the popularity of the substance has decreased dramatically.
The Truffidian Antechambers discontinued the habit of anointing their ears,
eyebrows, and armpits with a tincture of ambergris before holiday sermons.
The Kalif no longer eats raw ambergris to stimulate virility, substituting
live snails. Male rats, however, still enter a sexual frenzy when they
21. See note 8.
22. It could be argued that every
text in City of Saints & Madmen is a fictional creation by any
number of Ambergris citizens. The authenticity of these texts is dubious,
and their accuracy even more so. Each author seems to have an agenda, possibly
twisting history to advance it. The real Ambergris lies between the lines
of these subjective interpretations. See also notes 11
23. See note 22.
24. The stories take place during
various periods in Ambergris's history. For a historical perspective, see
(in "The Book of Ambergris") "The Hoegbotten Guide to the Early History
of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek" and (in "AppendiX") "The Hoegbotten Family
History" and "The Ambergris Glossary". "The Strange Case of X", however,
sheds an altogether different light on the matter (see note 35).
25. See note 6.
26. See note 6.
27. The implied masculinity behind
this word is no accident: see note 49.
28. I would argue that, despite appearances,
of Saints & Madmen is not a collection. It is a novel whose main
character is the city of Ambergris. None of the texts here can really stand
on their own. They are informed by each other; they transform each other.
of Saints & Madmen is a novel disguised as a mosaic (see note 6).
Questions of authorship and authenticity (see notes 16
and 22) come up as readers delve deeper in to the
text. As with a novel, the meaning of earlier sections evolves as reading
progresses. That some sections were previously published independently
is irrelevant (does that fact that sections of Robert Silverberg's The
Alien Years were published as short stories invalidate its status as
a novel?). City of Saints & Madmen, yes, is a peculiar novel,
both in structure and in content; but, here, both content and structure
reinforce each other and are essential to each other's success.
29. Defining fantasy falls outside
the parameters of this review.
30. See note 8.
31. Actually, it's a book.
32. The world itself is never named,
although many of its cities and peoples are.
33. See note 32.
34. See notes 2
35. VanderMeer's imagination is enriched
by a number of literature's great works. City of Saints & Madmen
evokes past fictions without falling into mere pastiche. It shares with
Mervyn Peake's The Gormenghast Trilogy pungent descriptions of decaying
architecture (see note 39), as well as the use of
setting as character. Its juggling of reality levels and its integration
of illustrations even the cover into the narrative (see notes 17
and 18) recall Alasdair Gray, especially his Lanark.
The work as whole but "AppendiX" and "The Hoegbotten Guide to the Early
History of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek" in particular falls into the Jorge
Luis Borges tradition (to quote John Clute's entry on Borges in The
Encyclopedia of Fantasy): "deeply inventive and suggestive manipulation
of certain SYMBOLS, which include the fictional BOOK [see notes 8
and 47], the DOUBLE [see note 11],
the protagonist who is the DREAM of another [see note 16],
the LIBRARY [VanderMeer substitutes this with the Borges Bookstore and
various publishing firms], the IMAGINARY LAND [Ambergris]". "The Book of
Ambergris" (with the exception of the Borgean "The Hoegbotten Guide to
the Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek") is structured like Paul
Auster's The New York Trilogy: "Dradin, In Love" is both an allegorical
quest of self-discovery and a poetic exploration of a city, like City
of Glass; the explicit use of colours in "The Transformation of Martin
Lake" evokes Auster's similar device in Ghosts; and "The Strange
Case of X" is the key that unlocks the metafictional mysteries of the earlier
tales, as is The Locked Room. These are but a few examples of the
literary history that informs City of Saints & Madmen.
36. See notes 6,
28, and 35.
37. I will refrain from making the
obvious textual pun. Oops. Too late.
38. Both in the sense of being deliciously
self-indulgent and in the sense that Ambergris is a decadent city.
39. Ambergris is rotting, infested
with various fungi.
40. See notes 13
41. If art is the quest for beauty,
especially of beauty found in unlikely places and achieved through adversity,
then City of Saints & Madmen is indeed great art.
42. Jeff VanderMeer (in an email to
this reviewer): "I labored over this book for so long".
43. See note 41.
44. Every design detail of City
of Saints & Madmen not only contributes to the story but also testifies
to the loving attention that this book received when it was put together.
Fonts, illustrations, layout, jacket... the care put into these is an acknowledgment
of the part played by the physical object of the book in the reading experience.
In this case, since the book is a mirror of sorts a fictional book, this
aspect is especially important (and, as it turns out, richly rewarding).
See notes 11 and 47.
45. See note 44.
46. See notes 8,
47. City of Saints & Madmen
is but one of many versions/permutations of a similar book existing in
reality and/or fiction (see notes 11, 17,
and 22). Reading it is a process of decryption and
interpretation (all fiction is such, but City of Saints & Madmen
makes it explicit; no wonder, then, that it contains an encrypted story,
complete with two decryptions: one incomplete and with mistakes, the other
in an accompanying envelope complete and, presumably, correct). The
reading of City of Saints & Madmen is an investigation into
its very nature and its layers of fictionality.
48. He certainly had fun. There's
a delirious pleasure that permeates the whole book.
49. Who is this madman? X? VanderMeer?
Is there more than one madman? That would explain the "madmen" in the title.
50. Duncan Shriek (a doppelganger
of X? Or perhaps of VanderMeer himself?), in "The Hoegbotten Guide to the
Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek": "A footnote on the purpose
of these footnotes [...] the most interesting information will be included
only in footnote form, and I will endeavor to include as many footnotes
as possible. Indeed, information alluded to in footnote form will later
be expanded upon in the main text, thus confusing any of you who have decided
not to read the footnotes." Now, I ask, what kind of writer would do a
thing like that?