Poor J.R.R. Tolkien. Sure, it's great to have a genre-defining work as your legacy, but since John Ronald Reuel shuffled off this mortal coil, no one has come close to replicating the feat of his masterwork. Attempts to create (or, in his particular verbiage, sub-create) as thoroughly as Tolkien did have resulted in either poorly realized or hopelessly artsy imitations. It's lonely at the top. But if I had to name one work that has shimmied a good way up the peak, it would be Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen.
Ambergris. City of wonder and terror, beauty and squalor. City ringing with calls to prayer from Truffidian priests and muttered threats from thieves who would open your throat as soon as your purse. You need to watch where you step in Ambergris. Yes, it's where Voss Bender wrote his operas, where Martin Lake painted his most marvelous works and where the Festival of the Freshwater Squid is celebrated every year. But many forget that walking down Albumuth Boulevard to pick up a volume from Borges Bookstore or inspect the wares at Hoegbotton & Sons could prove fatal. And when the sun sets, you want to get off the streets. That's when the gray caps come out from the beneath the city, the ancient fungus people who scatter multi-colored molds and harvest the city's refuse. If you aren't careful, they just might harvest you.
One might be tempted to describe City as a collection of short fiction, but that isn't entirely accurate. A few novellas read more or less like what you would expect. A failed Truffidian missionary faces peril while wooing a winsome lady in "Dradin, In Love," and a painter owes his big break to a moment of unspeakable violence ("The Transformation of Martin Lake"). But VanderMeer likes to employ odd forms while telling his stories. "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of the City of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek" piles on ephemera about the city through a footnote-laden travel guide written by a grumpy, arthritic historian. Editorial glosses on an illustrated short subtly reveal a deadly falling out between author and artist ("The Exchange"). And a psychiatrist investigating "The Strange Case of X" interviews an unusual patient -- one named Jeff VanderMeer.
All of the compendium's strangeness could've made it inaccessible, but VanderMeer does two things to ensure the stories are apprehensible to the common reader. First, his plots aren't overly complicated. Second, he cuts his dense, Tolkien-esque setting with lots of humor. An educational pamphlet entitled "King Squid" contains a 37-page bibliography filled with absolutely hilarious titles. (Among them are The Latest Horrifying and Yet Oddly Magnificent Adventures of the Courageous Squid Hunter and How to Order Your Bibliography for Maximum Reader Impact.) After a quote by a monk in "Early History of the City of Ambergris" stating that he had found "a bath of pure gold that was beautiful beyond description," a footnote sniffs, "Apparently, since [he] fails to describe it." And a glossary snarkily notes that once-warring political factions have become reduced to teaching piano lessons and throwing darts. City may seem byzantine at some intersections, terrifying at others, but it's certainly worth exploring.
(Picture: CC 2007 by Charalampos Konstantinidis)