Saturday, July 9, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Guest Review - Shawn O'Rourke on City of Saints and Madmen

Introduction:  Once again, we are lucky to have a guest post written by our friend and fellow-blogger Shawn!  You might remember his previous review (if you don't you can find his Locke and Key review here) and I hope you've checked out his blog where he discusses issues surrounding the growing trend in books going digital (you can find that here).  Now, without further ado and to keep Shawn's time in his lovely dress to a minimum, read on for his review of Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen.

Enter Ambergris: A City You’ve Never Been To But You Will Recognize Immediately

“What can be said about Ambergris that has not already been said? Every minute section of the city, no matter how seemingly superfluous, has a complex, even devious, part to play in the communal life.”
    - Epigraph from City of Saints and Madmen

           It seems that when it comes to fiction there are three great mythological cities that dominate the imaginations of writers and readers alike. These metropolises, divided by the aesthetics of the time, are instantly recognizable to the point that an author doesn’t necessarily create them so much as tap into their mythos. These tropes have become so ubiquitous that with minimal effort the reader will intuitively fill in the blanks of the imagined geography and architecture

           The first of these cities is the sprawling city of the modern, personified most obviously with romanticized conglomerations of New York, San Francisco, Chicago – in other words, the cities of the always present now. The second and third cities are on opposite sides of the boundaries of speculative fiction; one in the distant future with the massive world cities of science fiction, while the other is dominated by the imagery and iconography of a mythologized past. It is the latter of these conurbations that seems to have ensnared the writer Jeff Vandermeer whose books, beginning with City of Saints and Madmen, invite readers to explore the city of Ambergris.
Ambergris is a port city with a dark past, built at the nexus point of silt-filled waters inhabited by giant squid, populated by artists, criminals, and religious fanatics, and haunted by a strange pervasive fungus and the mysterious remnants of the township’s former inhabitants, the murderous Mushroom Caps. It is a world that evokes images of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere meets early 19th century New Orleans with just a dab of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. This is not to say that Vandermeer’s work is somehow derivative or unoriginal. In fact, it is able to simultaneously strike an immediately recognizable chord with readers with its ghostly old city while at the same time telling a fabulously original story.
The book itself, part of the New Weird genre, is a collection of previously published works. These include short stories, letters, fictional histories with quotations from other fictitious sources and even an annotated bibliography, all concluding with a detailed appendix that links many of the pieces together. While reading the book one gets a sense of the rich grandeur of Vandemeer’s vision and appreciates his decision not to limit his exploration of Ambergris to just one style of prose.
Capitalizing on the slightly postmodern bend of the book, the author himself even makes and appearance as an inmate of an Ambergrisean(?) sanitarium where he is being treated for insanity. Apparently he believes that he is a writer from another world who invented the city and all of its inhabitants. This conceit – which might at first strike some readers as a little heavy handed and distracting – evolves into a fascinating exploration of the all-consuming power of a big idea, and further fuels the sense that Vandermeer did not so much create Ambergris but  reveal it. The writer trapped by his own creation, unable to break from its call, is an intriguing addition to Vandemeer’s exploration of the city and its history.
And it really cannot be underestimated just how much this book is completely about the city. The characters and plot are not the primary focus of Vandermeer’s attention; they are instead vehicles to provide the reader with a lens through which to explore this mysterious place. The history section – which is exactly that, a historical narrative on the founding of Ambergris written as if one were reading from a text book or academic journal complete with source citations – is probably the most engaging portion of the book.
I would highly recommend this book to any one interested in original works that blend genre boundaries, or fans of the magical realists. Ambergris gains much of its narrative strength from the reader being able to fill the creative space with their own sense of the great and strange old city, but it is a joyful collaboration between the reader and the author, who proves himself a capable steward of the mythology that he is drawing from. His guides through Ambergris have continued with the books, Shriek: An Afterword and Finch.

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