Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Feature: "Who Is Jeff VanderMeer?"

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Roughly three ago, I didn't know who Jeff VanderMeer was (and for that matter, I didn't know who Jeffrey Ford was a few years back--what is it with the J's?). The first I had heard of him was through the venerable Dean Francis Alfar who commanded me to find him a copy of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases as I was the resident book pimp. Unfortunately, I failed but got the chance to redeem myself when Alfar was interested in acquiring City of Saints and Madmen. Little did I know that the latter has an interesting history (and multiple versions that compound on the previous releases--you can read the history here and here ) but as fate would have it, I found a black hardcover at Fully Booked, selling for half price and ignored by most people. It was sitting on a shelf too high for me to reach that I had to contact customer service and they promptly got a small ladder to reach the book (advice to bookstores: don't place books out of reach). I inspected it just to make sure it was the real thing and in retrospect, it was the Pan MacMillan/Tor UK hardcover edition. There were three copies lying around, each one selling for P700 (roughly $14.00 at today's exchange rate) and while I was tempted to purchase more than one copy, I was strapped for cash. I quickly browsed through the book that would soon belong to Alfar, admired the artwork, and stored it in my bag. Later that day, I arrived at the home of artist Rom Villaserran who complimented the book's cover. I would have given him a copy of the book then and there but unfortunately, I didn't own the book.
One year later, I would curse myself for not snagging those spare copies of City of Saints and Madmen. A mass-market version was available at local stores but the newer version was missing most of the art save for the occasional mushroom (to be fair, it retains the art from the appendix). By then, I had read Veniss Underground which I found to be an interesting novel which I couldn't help but compare to China Mieville's New Crobuzon. In this instance though, I found VanderMeer's writing to be superior and more upbeat. At this point, the name Jeff VanderMeer was this vague creature. He was a writer of the New Weird (I didn't call it the New Weird back then)? He was this avante-garde author? Later on, it would be book scavenger Joseph Nacino who would utter the name Jeff VanderMeer like a mantra. This was probably life's way of telling me "you should pay attention to Jeff VanderMeer!"

Which was important because a quick Google search revealed that he had a blog! And wrote for Omnivoracious, Amazon's blog. And a bazillion other publications. I realized that I was merely scratching the surface. Back then, VanderMeer was plugging his various anthologies, from Steampunk to Fast Ships, Black Sails. Okay, so VanderMeer isn't just a writer (and not just a New Weird writer at that), he's an editor too (which is a realization that came late considering I first heard of him through The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases). Looking back at his bibliography, I observed that he had written a few novels, including the aforementioned City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: Afterword--both of which were set in his Ambergris setting. Now City of Saints and Madmen was a book unlike anything I've ever encountered before, hence my preconception that VanderMeer was this cutting-edge, avante-garde writer. Just when I thought I had him figured out, VanderMeer announces that he's writing Predator: South China Seas novel. This is, of course, a complete shock to my existing paradigm and I wasn't alone.

"Predator? As in the same predator with Arnold Schwarzanegger?" asked a friend.

I nodded and this necessitated a new mental model of Jeff VanderMeer. If I was a decade younger (or naive), I'd probably think that VanderMeer was a sell-out (not that there's anything wrong with writing media tie-in novels). So I dug deeper into his history.

It's tempting to latch on to the idea that VanderMeer was always successful (in the sense that he's productive and famous) but that's the result of long, hard work. In many ways, VanderMeer follows a punk aesthetic, especially when you consider the fact that he's been active in the speculative fiction industry for more than two decades. He founded the Ministry of Whimsy and while it might contain the stigma of vanity press, at least when it comes to the Leviathan series (in which VanderMeer is co-editor for volumes 1-3), it's not like the anthologies weren't lauded. And over the years, VanderMeer has produced material that defies convention, from The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, City of Saints and Madmen, to the various incarnations of Shriek: An Afterword (movie, soundtrack, stamps). In that context, Predator: South China Seas is a perfect fit in the sense that it's something that VanderMeer hasn't tried before, and doesn't shirk from attempting. I'm not even including work that bridges the fiction/non-fiction divide such as Secret Life (not to be confused with Secret Lives), Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, or the upcoming The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals.

What truly excites me about VanderMeer is that to simply call him a writer or editor is to ignore his other facets: reviewer, columnist, publisher, promoter, columnist, scholar, teacher, blogger, etc. And he manages to successfully juggle all of those as if he was a mutant hybrid of a chimera and a hydra. Some people are content being successful in one field but that's not the case with VanderMeer. He continues to innovate which brings me to the reason why I'm writing this.

Product Placement! Pre-order the book here.

VanderMeer's third Ambergris novel, Finch, is coming out later this from Underland Press. Now as varied as VanderMeer's short stories and novels are from one another, a recurring subject he often goes back to every few years is Ambergris. What is Ambergris? It's this secondary world where humans live among mushroom people (called Gray Caps). My own words do the setting no justice and while it's easy to imagine Super Mario Bros. when I mention mushroom people (Toad anyone?), VanderMeer actually makes them threatening, eerie, and alien. Let me tackle the three books briefly:

City of Saints and Madmen for me redefines the mosaic novel. My preconception of a mosaic novel is something along the lines of Thieves World where a bunch of authors collaborate on the same setting, using the same cast of characters and creating a unified narrative despite writing independent short stories. This book, however, isn't like that. If fantasy fans admire J.R.R. Tolkien on his historical approach to fantasy, as was the case with Silmarillion, VanderMeer takes that premise to the next level. City of Saints and Madmen isn't about any specific character but Ambergris as a whole. You'll find fictional histories (complete with footnotes), bibliographies, appendices, and various short stories. In fact, it's too faithful to the nonfiction material it's mimicking that the writing can get dry and boring (can you really imagine yourself reading several pages of fabricated bibliographies?). But taken as a whole, VanderMeer succeeds in experimenting with structure and form.

Shriek: An Afterword, on the other hand, is a more conventional narrative in the form of a biography (not autobiography!) that's annotated by the very subject it's talking about. It builds upon what's established in the previous novel but stands well on its own. If City of Saints and Madmen experiments with form and structure, Shriek: An Afterword experiments with technique. This is an incredibly layered read, the type that one can easily gloss over but rewards those that pay attention (as opposed to needing to pay attention the entire way, which is the case with James Joyce's Ulysses).

Finch may be the third book in the series but it's completely unlike the first two books. While admittedly its experimentation is less overt (overt being the key word here and I wouldn't be surprised if I missed a meta-textual commentary by VanderMeer), it nonetheless veers towards an unexpected direction with its mystery atmosphere. There's a lot of fantastical elements and genre tropes but all throughout, the book is written with a certain seriousness and drama. Throw in various other elements such as Steampunk and Magic-Realism and you end up with a book that's sophisticated and has a steady build-up. Perhaps the biggest treat for Ambergris fans is that VanderMeer finally answers some enigmas in the previous books, while still being accessible to new readers.

An interesting metafictional layer (as if VanderMeer wasn't metafictional enough) when it comes to all three books is its publishing history: three different publishers (well, at least when it comes to the initial publisher of City of Saints and Madmen) and three entirely different novels yet all written by the same author and set in the same cosmology. Looking at the titles released by Underland Press, Finch is (intentionally?) a perfect match for them, especially with the vibe it conjures.

Over the past few months, I've gotten to known Jeff VanderMeer a bit more but I'm honestly no closer to answering "Who is Jeff VanderMeer?" The only thing I'm certain of is that he'll surprise me as he never ceases to experiment and innovate (assuming the Gray Caps or the squids or the finger puppets don't get to him first).