Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finch Perches at the Ambergris Cycle's Peak

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a theory, just a simple observation: When it comes to trilogies, second installments tend to be the best. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with finding a compositional safe place. Initial entries need to lay a sound foundation, and conclusions have to pound in all the stray nails and make sure the trim gets painted. But the middle falls into the sweet spot, with all the initial exposition out of the way and plenty of room to play before needing to wrap everything up. Of course, one can think of exceptions. The Matrix trilogy slid down a straight slope from visionary to dull to pedantic. Then there's Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris cycle, which does the exact opposite, rising from a fascinating yet almost impenetrably dense debut (City of Saints and Madmen) to a somewhat less experimental familial drama (Shriek: An Afterword) to its final piece -- the grab-you-by-the-throat hardboiled thriller Finch.

Six years since the Rising. Six years since the fragile coalition of warrior merchant houses Hoegbottom & Sons and Frankwrithe & Lewden fell to the gray caps, the fungal creatures long dwelling beneath Ambergris. Now the city is almost unrecognizable, whole houses swallowed by semi-sentient mold, giant drug-dispensing growths keeping an oppressed populace chemically placated, and fungus-augmented half-humans always pressing the threat of the internment camps on the unruly. The man who calls himself Finch holds no love for the gray caps, even though he works for them. Drafted might be a better word. He's a detective, and he has just received the toughest case of his short career. A dead man and an equally dead gray cap found in 239 Manzikert Avenue, apartment 525. Looking as though they fell from a great height. Even though that's impossible. Finch's investigation will take him into further impossibilities, into other times and dimensions, into contact with ferocious gray caps and militant rebels and endlessly scheming spies, none of whom care a whit for his wellbeing.

Finch's predecessors were interstitial works, falling intentionally on the self-consciously artsy side of the literary spectrum. But the last entry in the Ambergris cycle is pure genre, a blend of Raymond Chandler and 1984 with Ian Fleming and the original Stargate film added in. VanderMeer channels the rich setting and characters he developed previously into pure plot, and what a plot it is. Finch lands very quickly in over his head and stays there throughout almost the entire novel. (It's telling that VanderMeer brackets chapters with dialogue between his protagonist and an unnamed interrogator unafraid to use very rough physical persuasion.) Like Finch, readers catch glimpses of competing conspiracies, ancient civilizations and bizarre dimensions that unfold like an accordion before collapsing back into Ambergris' now-familiar tableau. It makes for electrifying reading. Sure, there are a few downsides. VanderMeer's attempt at hardboiled prose often feels a bit too choppy, and those who haven't read the entire cycle may miss the emotional import of a few scenes. But ultimately Finch perches at the trilogy's peak.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Hopefoote, Ambassador of the Wow)


Unknown said...

I have several times now visited a bookstore, picked up, and then put down "City of Saints and Madmen." I'm still not sure what to do with it.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, it's an ood read. Think of it like a spunky commonplace book, a place where VanderMeer decided to play around with creating the richest setting he possibly could. If you go in expecting a well-developed plot, you'll likely be disappointed.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I've several times visited a bookstore, picked up City of Saints & Madmen, decided I wanted to buy it....and decided that it was too expensive and I have a pile of good books at home.

But SOON, I shall give in.

Btw., the Vandermeers (Jeff and his wife) put out my favorite multi-author short story anthology (well, that I haven't worked on). It's called Fast Ships, Black Sails, and is a collection of pirate themed SF and fantasy.

Not to sound like an advertisement, but the collection runs the gambit from hardish SF space opera to a beatifully fantastic exploration of love and mourning to Talk Like a Pirate Day themed contemporary madcap. Unlike most anthologies, there weren't really any stories I had to slog my way through.

More to the point, the common thread of all the stories had was that they were unpretentious and oddly earnest; no one was playing literary games for literary-games sakes, and even the one or two overly conventional stories won me over because it was so easy to see the author's love for the material and themes.

It was when I read that anthology--and the VanderMeers' delightful introduction (which doesn't, however, hold a candle to Gene Wolfe's introduction for Endangered Species)--that I knew I *had* to read City. I'm willing to go through any amount of difficult and often impenetrable writing, so long as I can trust the author to *love* Genre, and to know what he is messing with.

After reading that book, I cannot believe VanderMeer will ever be numbered among those who write genre with a self-conscious deprecatory cough, showing how smart they are for manipulating their allusions and readers like puppets while implying that the "real stuff" is sophisticated literary fiction, genre a distant second.

Loren Eaton said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of it. There's a little bit of literary gamesmanship going on, but not to an obnoxious degree.