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City of Saints and Madmen
Jeff VanderMeer
Bantam, 704 pages

City of Saints and Madmen
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Excerpt: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: Secret Life

SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

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A jobless pilgrim enters Ambergris, the City of Saints and Madmen. Looking through a window inside a house, he sees the woman he resolves to fall in love with. A tattooed dwarf offers him his services as a matchmaker. The endeavours of the passionate pilgrim lead him to a masturbating living saint and into the mad swirl of the festival of the freshwater squid, which becomes a life-threatening trap to him, for the mysterious greycaps have chosen him as sacrifice...

In a flurry of laconic footnotes to his essay on the "Early History of Ambergris," the historian Duncan Shriek expresses his contempt for readers of travel guides. At the same time, we learn about the most important key figures of the city's history -- from the early days, when Manzikert I arrived at the shores of the river Moth with his pirate fleet and slaughtered the native greycaps until the present day, when the mushrooms and lichens that herald the return of the underground dwellers blossom in every corner...

Martin Lake's transformation from a second-class painter into one of the most impressive artists of Ambergris remains a mystery to art historians. Even the expert Janice Shriek has no idea that Lake's gloomy awakening as an artist is the consequence of murderous events, the city split in two camps by the civil war between the admirers and the haters of the recently deceased opera composer Voss Bender. But only when Martin Lake encounters a costumed troupe of conspirators does he understand the importance of the great musician to his personal life...

There's a madman locked up in the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute who claims that all of Ambergris is just a figment of his imagination. When he disappears, a crude conglomeration of texts and notes is found in his cell -- short stories of well-known authors from Ambergris, letters, a pseudo-scientific pamphlet about the freshwater king squid. Between the lines, the lichen and mushrooms that precede the coming of the greycaps grow...

...and at this point, we are only halfway through City of Saints and Madmen. It requires a certain arrogance to write a book that is from page to page increasingly concerned with the act of writing itself. Jeff VanderMeer's stories and fragments are spiralling in on the question of how a human being is transformed by the spell of his or her own imagination, how a writer happens to create something astonishing, monstrous, insane, how control of it is lost -- if the writer ever had any control in the first place.

For in Ambergris, no source is reliable, no authorship beyond doubt. The information on authorship we get within the book proves self-contradictory again and again. The opening novella, "Dradin, in Love" is at one time described as the autobiography of a madman, while at another instance it is attributed to the likewise mad Mr. X, who appears to be VanderMeer's desperate alter ego. Duncan Shriek's historical essay on Ambergris seems authentic, until we learn -- in the glossary at the end of the book -- that it has been inspired by a joke the novelist Sirin once made. About the freshwater squids, whose flesh provides the citizens of Ambergris with food and who are possibly in league with the uncanny graycaps, we learn most from a pamphlet that has been rejected by the scientific society of Ambergris and that indeed doesn't seem to stick too closely to any kind of scientific standard.

VanderMeer's writing is directed against any kind of certainty. There are no facts here, only versions. City of Saints and Madmen is, even though narrative in style, no narration, even though vivid, no illustration. Rather, it works as a provisional map: a collection of routes and landmarks that only has meaning in connection with a travelling route. These are road signs wide open to interpretation, and time after time we have to decide which of them to believe, which of them to discard. However, despite all its self-contradictions and its fragmentation, VanderMeer's "travelling guide" is nevertheless a piece of work that is carefully constructed in every detail -- in a way that compels one to read it in more than one direction, to flick forward and, foremost, back.

Many of the novellas and short stories included in City of Saints and Madmen are wonderfully macabre fantasies in their own right, but their real impact unfolds only within the work as a whole. There we can trace how the spores of the greycaps slowly retake Ambergris. In fact, the whole book is marked by a pervasive mood of colourful, musty decay, an often humorous, sometimes reverent joy of the iridescent colours of love, death and rot. Still, VanderMeer is everything but a cynic -- he's only deeply conscious of the implied cynicism of writing.

In the story "Learning to Leave the Flesh," he takes his knowledge of this cynicism so far as to reflect on the exploitation of personalities for his writing, about the creative harnessing of their outer appearance and the guilt this "theft" of human raw material creates. Some of these things are hard to swallow. Some of them leave a pleasantly sore feeling in your throat. Some of them disrupt. Not everything works, but nothing is superfluous.

Like so many "postmodernist" writers of fantasy, VanderMeer is fascinated by the eras of industrialisation and early modernism: by the pompous style of their scientific discourse, by their fear of degeneration, the recently encountered horrors of bacteriology and the bloody history of civilisation. The typography of the book plays an important part in getting this fascination across: from the richly ornamented covers of scientific brochures brandishing never-ending titles, from ink-stained typewriter pages to page ornaments that render the organic nature-aesthetic of art deco in a new, gloomy light. There's no text in this book, no picture and no typographical element that doesn't communicate with the rest of it. Everything is readable, everything can be connected. This is even true of a few pages of fictional (and exceedingly funny) literary references.

Every author needs at least a little dash of arrogance. But rarely is it used as the means to such wonderfully monstrous ends, and with such a rich outcome.

Copyright © 2006 Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact (www.alien-contact.de) and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.


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