the science fiction
fantasy horror &
Shriek: An Afterword
Macmillan paperback £10.99
review by David Hebblethwaite
This novel marks a return to 'Ambergris', the setting of Jeff Vandermeer's story collection City Of Saints And Madmen (though you don't need to have read it to understand and enjoy Shriek). One of the novellas in that earlier book took the form of a historical pamphlet, The Hoegbotton Guide To The Early History Of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek. This volume is presented as a biographical afterword to the 'Early History', written by Duncan's sister Janice after he has disappeared - or so she thinks, because Duncan has found her manuscript and made his own annotations.
As a historian, Duncan is obsessed with the 'gray caps', the mysterious mushroom people living below Ambergris who were (Duncan believes) responsible for several strange events in the city's history, such as the Silence, when 25,000 people just vanished. Duncan even ventures underground to investigate the gray caps - and returns to the surface infested with fungus that will never leave him entirely. Janice is concerned about her brother's obsession, and about his romantic liaisons with Mary Sabon, one of his students at Blythe Academy. But Janice also has problems of her own: though a successful gallery owner, she tries to commit suicide; and, after a period of convalescence, finds that the New Art movement on which her success was founded has gone out of fashion - and many of her artists have taken their work back.
With both Shriek siblings out of work (Duncan having been dismissed from Blythe Academy when his affair with Mary Sabon was discovered), war breaks out between the rival publishing houses Hoegbotton & Sons (the merchants who effectively rule Amergris, as much as anyone can be said to) and Frankwrithe & Lewden. Duncan and Janice find a new vocation as reporters for the 'Ambergris Daily Broadsheet'. Things change again after the war: with the city and its inhabitants transformed by the effects of Frankwrithe & Lewden's fungal bombs (obtained, presumably, from the gray caps), Mary Sabon, now a practising historian, proposes the theory of Nativism - that the gray caps have no conscious thought and thus played no active part in Ambergrisian history. This is in direct opposition to Duncan's contention, which is that they gray caps do have influence and intentions, just not ones that we may understand - and they will strike back if their plans are interfered with. Mary is the one whose theories are embraced - but what does it mean for Ambergris if Duncan is right?
Perhaps the exploits of a historian and a gallery owner may not seem particularly exciting subject matter for a fantasy novel (unless the protagonists are turned into unstoppable action heroes - which, thankfully, the Shrieks are not; indeed, Vandermeer probably spends more time describing academic debates than Duncan's underground adventures). Scratch the surface, however, and Shriek proves vital and compelling because (just as in the best epic fantasy yarns) the fate of the world - or, more accurately, how its inhabitants see their world - is at stake. Yes, this sounds melodramatic, but consider: there's an alien people living under the city, and it makes a difference to the Ambergrisians whether that people are (in effect) harmless animals or a deadly threat with unknowable intent. There are interesting parallels with our own world, particularly in the way we rely on other people's interpretations to construct our reality (for history books, substitute television, newspapers or the Internet); and the way we try to find meaning in tragic events (the Ambergrisians would rather think of an event like the Silence as their own fault than as an accidental by-product of the gray caps' activities).
There's more: Vandermeer presents the very act of writing as a pursuit that, in its own way, is as dangerous and bewildering and meddling with magic could ever be. Duncan observes that "too many words can be a trap," and there are traps aplenty in Shriek, such as tales of the editor Sirin publishing fiction as non-fiction and vice versa, or Mary quoting Duncan's writings out of context in her afterword. We come to realize that the distance between what actually happened and the account in the text we have may be even greater than we thought. But there's a problem: instead of the tingle of imagination at the prospect of working out where the discrepancies might lie, one feels almost overwhelmed at the sheer number of possibilities. And, since it's hard to know where to even begin disentangling it all, one may as well take the book at face value. So that's something of a missed opportunity, but there is still much to think about in Shriek, and it's most welcome.
There is also, however, much to enjoy. Vandermeer gives us some beautiful passages and turns of phrase, and some funny ones, too (a marvellous rant from a publisher against Duncan springs immediately to mind). His characters are interesting, particularly the two Shriek siblings (it's a shame that Janice can be such a pain, but never mind). And there are some wonderful flights of imagination: Ambergris, a city that hums and sings like a real place despite (or perhaps because of) being stitched together from elements of disparate time periods, would be fascinating in its own right. But add to that phenomena like the Shift, when reality itself becomes fluid; or the gray caps' mysterious part-mechanical, part-organic contraption whose function Duncan can only guess at; and you have something rather special.
However, Shriek falls at the very last hurdle, and for a most unusual reason. For its ultimate effect, the novel relies on the reader disbelieving the fantasy to an extent; but Vandermeer has imagined it so completely that this is pretty much an impossible task (or so I found). Still, we should not let this sully the fine novel Jeff Vandermeer has produced. If you've never visited Ambergris before, you'll find Shriek to be a superb introduction; if you have, it's a return trip you should not miss.
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