Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Ambergris (#2)
I read it: June 2018
There’s something about the book you read around the time of the summer solstice. Sitting outside in the evening when the birds, beasts, and insects are all lively—the day creatures mingling with the night flyers. I knew it was the specific time of year when I wanted to revisit the stories of Ambergris. The time when heat hangs in the air and mushrooms sneak up through mulch.
In the context of the storyline itself, the full title of this book is An Afterword to “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris” by Janice Shriek [and Duncan Shriek]. I couldn’t remember many details of reading the “Hoegbotton Guide” in City of Saints and Madmen, but this “afterword” shines a lot more light on the construction. You see, the Hoegbotton Guide was originally written by Duncan, but then trimmed and refined (Duncan might say mutilated) down into the version put to page by Janice, which is the version in City of Saints and Madmen, but which Duncan added his editorial notes to. The Afterword is written by Janice, meant to be a companion piece to “Hoegbotton Guide,” but spiraling out into its own narrative of love, loss, career, disease, obsession, and war. Duncan is back at it with his comments to the text, and finally Janice circles back in a final edit to make it all readable.
Sound twisty? It is. And it’s great fun. In the Afterword we learn about the siblings themselves, their rivalry and also devotion to each other, and the wedge that came between them in the name of Mary Sabon. She’s referenced in “Hoegbotton Guide,” but if I recall, it’s only hinted there that she was Duncan’s lover. Here their relationship takes up a good chunk of the storyline. Duncan’s obsession with Mary is a parallel to his obsession with the graycaps. Duncan is a rogue historian who wants to tell his city the truth about the threat that rests beneath them, but nobody wants to hear it. Does anybody want to hear any of this book? Janice’s narrative is a search for truth, of a sort, although she knows that solid structure may elude her: “We make up stories to understand ourselves and tell ourselves that they are true, when in fact they only represent an individual impression of one individual fingerprint, no matter how universal we attempt to make them.”
Aside from all the family drama—Duncan and Janice’s jabs at each other on the page, although separated by time and circumstance, are deliciously inventive—there’s also an escalating political and cultural clash that threatens to overtake Ambergris. The city is once again a grimy yet fantastical place, in a sense an artist’s dream, given the unnaturally high number of art galleries, news outlets, and publishing houses that exist and hold influence. It’s a throwback to a partially-industrial time when intellectual battles were waged with pen and ink in the form of printed broadsheets and at trendsetter parties for the briefly famous. It all seems very European, or maybe it’s just the Midwesterner in me who doesn’t understand this life. Whatever it is, it’s a fine backdrop for Duncan and Janice’s tortured lives, and the scene of a horror when the graycaps finally put a plan into motion. The way VanderMeer is able to describe how Ambergris lives and breathes is a true feat. Its pulse is constantly noticed by its aging citizens. Writes Duncan: “Ambergis will do that to you—it becomes so central to your life that any other place is a faint echo, a pale reflection, a cliché in search of originality.”
Duncan himself is succumbing to an infection due to his travels underground. He gets more mushroomy by the month, and speculates that “one day I will dissolve into the world, will become a gentle spray of spores, will settle on the sidewalk and on trees, on grass and soil, and yet still be—watchful and aware.” He hammers away at his notes to the manuscript in a dingy bar where a green light hangs in the air and a hole opens up near a crack against the wall. This is also where Janice spent her time writing the initial draft. The two write and edit, visit and revisit, never quite sure if they will see the other sibling again, as something threatens to lead (beckon? invite? pull?) them underground for good. We have the pleasure of getting pulled into the story.
Music corner: VanderMeer was allowed to list a page of music acknowledgements at the end of the book. (Why can’t more authors do this?) His list is lengthy, including bands or specific albums that align with various plot threads or themes. The few I’d listened to in the past include Afghan Whigs, The Cure, Muse, The National, Radiohead, and Spoon. But one album, the inspiration for “war reporter scenes,” is Thursday’s War All the Time. I clicked play when I started typing this review, but had to pause it after the first song because it was too distracting. I was remembering almost every lyric as each was shouted out, so it didn’t lend itself to the task. But now I’ve come to the bottom of the screen, and I have some housework to do, so let’s resume with “Between Rupture and Rapture.” We are coming to the capital!