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Friday 15 March 2002

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

Jeff VanderMeer's2 City of Saints & Madmen3 (Prime,4 20025) is a mosaic6 of fluid7 texts8 — incorporating9 a revised10 version11 of the earlier12 City of Saints & Madmen: The Book of Ambergris13 (Cosmos Books,14 200115) and a host16 of other material17 illuminating18 both the city19 of Ambergris20 and the stories21 that claim22 to describe23 its history24 — that, together,25 form26 a masterful27 novel28 of fantasy29 fiction.30 It is a portal31 into another world,32 the world33 of VanderMeer's34 imagination35: complex36 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 notes.50)

1. The Libraries of Thought & Imagination 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).

4. Prime "is a new publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels, collections, and anthologies."

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 City 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.

14. Cosmos 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 best 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 Ambergris?)

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 Ambergris.

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 smell ambergris."

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 and 47.

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, City 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. City 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 and 16.

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, 17, 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 and 31.

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, 28, and 35.

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?

Claude Lalumière — a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Black Gate, and others — was a bookseller for 12 years. He's the editor of the upcoming anthology Telling Stories: New English Fiction from Québec (Spring 2002). His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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