Ambergris was introduced in Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, a novel in stories whose journey from the fringe to the mainstream should by now be the stuff of legend, an illustration in miniature of the profound changes that have taken place in the field of fantasy over the last decade. The stories that make up City of Saints and Madmen are brief illuminations of a vast tapestry that charts the city's life and death—just enough to glimpse a face here and a detail there, and constantly suggesting the intricacy of what remains unseen. Shriek: An Afterword, the first Ambergris-set novel proper, shines a stronger spotlight onto this history, connecting the disparate stories in City of Saints and Madmen into something resembling a single narrative. Sadly, the novel falls short of City of Saints and Madmen's brilliance, and the Ambergris that emerges from it is less appealing than the one encountered in that earlier book.
Allegedly an afterword to one of the stories in City of Saints and Madmen, "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," in which the caustic and much-maligned historian Duncan Shriek laid out the circumstances of Ambergris's foundation and of the centuries-long feud between the city's human inhabitants and the gray caps, Shriek is more accurately both a book-length biography of Duncan and an autobiography of its author, his sister Janice. Janice charts Duncan's career as a historian, his lifelong fascination with the gray caps and their underground city, and his obsessive romance with his young student, Mary Sabon, who ultimately rejects Duncan's historical theories so violently that she dedicates her career to destroying his. Janice, meanwhile, launches an entire art movement when she discovers the artist Martin Lake, and quickly becomes a major figure in Ambergis high society. Shriek charts her meteoric rise and equally meteoric crash—through drugs, debauchery, suicide attempts, and ultimately a quiet oblivion as a lowly Ambergrisian tour guide.
Overlaying Janice's narrative is Duncan's rebuttal, which takes the form of copious, lengthy notes—corrections of factual errors, expansions on events and motivations that Janice wasn't privy to, and, most often, tirades against her twisting and altering of their shared history to suit her own preconceived notions. History, its perception and its description, is at the core of the novel, with the three main characters each embodying a different approach to both. Duncan believes that through the study of the past, the historian should be personally affected and altered—an approach that he takes to extremes when he ventures into the gray caps' underground city and returns bearing a fungal infestation that will, over the course of the next few decades, transform him into something barely human. Mary, terrified by Duncan's discoveries and by what they mean for her ordered, logical existence above ground, treats history as an emotionless puzzle-solving exercise. In her books, she seeks to settle questions, do away with doubt, and shed light on mysteries—even if, in order to do so, she must maintain a willful blindness to the truth that Duncan has shown her. Janice, the amateur historian, filters the city's history through her own personal experiences—this war broke out just as she was recovering from a suicide attempt; that riot was the death knell of her career as an art impresario. For the readers, Janice's personal history becomes inextricably entangled with the history of Ambergris.
Which is a problem once one realizes how thoroughly annoying Janice is. Given to melodrama, self-pity, and self-aggrandizement, Janice places her own uninteresting triumphs and crises in the foreground, all but ignoring the social and political upheavals that took place while she was busy throwing parties and taking drugs. Especially in the novel's first half, in which a self-absorbed Janice relates every insignificant detail of a profoundly ordinary life, the result is tedium. In its second half, the novel's pace picks up as events in the city grow more momentous, but Janice is a poor writer, whose descriptions fail to convey Ambergris's grandeur and the horrors she witnesses. When the protagonist of "Dradin, In Love," the first Ambergris story, witnesses the Festival of the Freshwater Squid—an annual orgy of mindless, motiveless violence—he describes "Rag dolls in tatters, the flesh pulled from hindquarters, groins, chests, the red meeting the green of the moon and turning black.... The harsh wind carried the smell of offal.... He had to push aside and duck under the limbs of the dead." Janice, who experiences the worst Festival in the city's history, describes a similar sight with perfunctory, utilitarian prose: "Some lamp posts played host to bodies swinging from ropes, heads lolling, tongues distended, skin pulled back in caricatures of smiles," and overwrought metaphors: "The moon overhead was like the knuckle of a fist pressed against a dirty window."
That Janice's self-absorption and leaden narrative voice are intentional should be obvious even to a reader unfamiliar with VanderMeer's facility with words, but their purpose eludes me. It's possible that VanderMeer intended to challenge his readers by filtering the events of the novel through the eyes of an unlikable narrator, but Janice doesn't manage to elicit an emotion as strong as dislike. She is simply a boring person, whose single extraordinary trait is her inability to grasp her own ordinariness. Her growth over the course of the novel is similarly unexciting: through the process of narrating her and Duncan's life, Janice achieves some perfunctory insight into her own psyche, but it doesn't amount to much beyond the fact that she should stop obsessing about her father's death and go out and live her life (and while the sudden and early death of a parent is a traumatic and affecting experience, VanderMeer's use of the death of Duncan and Janice's father as both their primary motivator and the cause of a deep-seated emotional trauma that prevents them from forming lasting and healthy relationships for the better part of six decades is a crude and unworthy device). Beyond this simplistic development of her character, Janice changes not a bit over the course of the afterword's writing, and the past Janice that she describes also remains largely unchanged, even by huge and potentially life-altering events.
Moreover, although her purpose is ostensibly to describe her brother, Janice has so little insight into Duncan (or anyone else, for that matter) that it is only through his notes that we gain even the slightest understanding of his character. Unfortunately, although the Duncan that emerges from these notes is less caustic than the crotchety narrator of the "Early History of Ambergris," he still uses humor (and ill-humor) as a defensive mechanism, leaving us largely in the dark as to his deeper feelings. Duncan is a man given to extreme emotions and consuming obsessions—with his dead father, with the gray caps, with Mary—but despite Janice's best efforts to puzzle him out, we never understand the source of these obsessions (unless, again, we are to accept Janice's facile assumption that all of Duncan's actions can be explained by the trauma of his father's early death), or the shape of the personality that indulges in them. Oddly enough, it is Mary Sabon who, despite having no voice in the novel, emerges as its most rounded character, possibly because the resentful Janice and lovelorn Duncan have such diametrically opposed opinions of her.
There's a flatness to Shriek that extends beyond its characters. VanderMeer is fond of peppering his novels with dark and absurd humor (his previous novel, Veniss Underground, is a good example of this use of the absurd to humanize its plot and characters). He tries to do this in Shriek, primarily in his descriptions of a bloody civil war between two rival publishing houses, which culminates in an amateur opera produced by war-weary citizens that is, in turn, interrupted by a bloody invasion. On the page, however, these absurdities fail to register—they are neither funny nor outrageous. Janice takes herself too seriously, and her narrative voice is too sentimental and melodramatic—it lacks the dry quality that would allow us to recognize our laugh cue. Similarly, while we obviously can't expect VanderMeer to reveal the solutions to the mysteries that haunt Duncan—the nature of the Silence, the gray caps' true intentions—the revelations that Duncan does achieve are, with the exception of a scene towards the end of the book in which Duncan finally manages to make Janice and Mary see the hidden city that underlies their own, uninteresting. They fail to whet the reader's appetite for just another crumb of information as the document scraps and cryptic clues that litter City of Saints and Madmen do. The nature of documents and historical narratives, their inability to convey the truth of the past, is an important theme in the novel, reinforced by the discovery that "The Early History of Ambergris" is in fact a drastically edited version of a sprawling, digressive work of which no copy remains, and that Janice's afterword has been edited itself—in at least one instance, because Duncan's final reaction to the piece was completely illegible. But again, where a similar theme in City of Saints and Madmen served to entice its readers into seeking out more documents and more information about Ambergris, in Shriek it proves dispiriting—the notion of being submerged in yet more detail about Duncan and Janice's life, or additional glimpses of their journals and correspondence, is wearying.
Readers already familiar with the City of Saints and Madmen universe would probably do well to avoid Shriek—as I said at the beginning of this review, the Ambergris that emerges from the novel is a less layered, less compelling invented universe for having been filtered through Duncan and Janice's perceptions, and I believe that fellow City fans will react to the novel with profound disappointment. Although it stands on its own as a piece of fiction—VanderMeer relates the salient points of the city's history in a few brief, if occasionally awkward, info-dumps—I don't think I could recommend the novel to new readers either. It is an unaffecting Nabokovian intellectual exercise with very little beyond its cleverness to recommend it, and a poor introduction to both the Ambergris universe and VanderMeer's otherwise exceptional body of work.
Abigail Nussbaum is currently wrapping up a Computer Science degree at the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension, and she blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.