City Of Saints And Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

February 1, 2008 at 5:38 pm (Jeff VanderMeer, Reviews)

Jeff VanderMeer - City of Saints and MadmenFollowing up on my books-that-I-want-to-show-off tour, I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen. Many others have espoused on the quality of VanderMeer’s work; people more articulate, more credible, and, more importantly, better known than myself. (In fact, I’m daunted by the prospect of reviewing this, as I’m sure to do a poor job.) But I can’t help from piling on additional praise (I’m a slow enough reader as it is, and I can’t pass up the chance to make an entry, no matter how little it actually means).

City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of stories, all set in the hazardous city of Ambergris, that are both whimsical and macabre. The best word I can describe it with is absurd. But delightfully so. Mushrooms and squids spring up in the most imaginative ways, winding their way into each tale. The prose flows smoothly, but I found each story took a little bit of effort before it took hold. VanderMeer exhibits a ready willingness to make fun of both his readers and himself.

The collection starts off with Dradin, In Love, the title being self-explanatory. It follows the young minister Dradin, newcomer to Ambergris, who spots an enchanting woman in the window of a local merchant house. With the help of a dwarf, Dvorak, he attempts to anonymously gain her affections. This story, sadly, didn’t contain the humor that is featured throughout the rest of the book. Or maybe it’s humor was too sophisticated for me to understand.

Next is The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, also self-explanatory. It is a story set up in the manner of a historical pamphlet, written by fictional author Duncan Shriek. This is an account of the founding of Ambergris and events leading up to the beginning of the cities troubles with the mushroom-like Gray Caps and the mysterious event called the Silence, dotted with footnotes that poke fun at impatient readers to beak up the dryness of the story itself.

The Transformation of Martin Lake follows the early career of the famed painter, Martin Lake, and how he became the profound artist fondly remembered through history. It offers commentary on the death of, also famed, composer Voss Bender (whose name springs up in practically every story), and the conflict between the Reds and Greens that ensued because of it. Delightfully gruesome.

The Strange Case of X is funniest piece in this collection. VanderMeer himself shows up, having been transplanted into his own world, and held for psychiatric evaluation.

The rest of the book is classified as an AppendiX, and features stories in support of The Strange Case of X, but which also stand well enough on their own. King Squid is set up as a scientific pamphlet on the most revered of squids, the narrative dripping with venom that the author, Frederick Madnok, has for his fellow squidologists. It features a 38 page bibliography that demands to be read for its commentary on the books included (which feature detailing of the many adventures of the Torture Squid), and for the conclusion of Madnok’s tale. The Hoegbotton Family History is a world-building piece that sits as a primer for The Cage, which follows Richard Hoegbotton’s early days in Ambergris, and his acquisition of a cage left by the Gray Caps, but fails to ever explain itself.  And The Exchange, and odd tale set over an elderly couples dinner.

Low points include The Release of BelacquaThe Man Who Had No Eyes and Learning to Leave the Flesh. While not bad, they don’t compare to books other offerings.

Even The Ambergris Glossary demanded to be read in full. Glossary’s are something I have little trouble ignoring, but that the book didn’t really require a glossary was telling that there was probably more to it. Indeed, there were some memorable entries:

MANZIKERT VII. Death by an extreme miscalculation while flossing. Of his actual reign, the less said the better. See also: Manziism; Manzikert VI; Manzikert VIII.” – page 35 (Glossary)

NUNK, AUTARCH OF. Although a real historical figure, the Autarch is more commonly known to children and adults as the happy fool of Voss Bender’s Nunk poems, which contain such rhymes as ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Was a collector of junk/Which he kept in a trunk/Beside his pet skunk’ and ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Loved to get drunk/And, in the grip of a sudden funk,/Pass out fitfully on his bunk.’ Several critics have complained that a less famous personage would not have been able to get such doggerel published, but the illustrations by Kinsky in the omnibus version amply make up for the simplistic verse. Recently, amongst the few possessions left by Michael Abrasis to the Manzikert Memorial Library, archivists discovered a second set of Nunk poems, decidedly more adult, as this excerpt demonstrates: ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Liked women with spunk/To wiggle and tickle/His enormous pink pickle.’ (Although some historians believe this is a gardening reference.) See also: Abrasis, Michael; Bender, Voss.” – page 41-42 (Glossary)

There are many other comical definitions, but many of them are also simple world-building descriptions.

Overall Impression: Great.

Final Thoughts: City of Saints and Madmen is a delightfully absurd, gruesome and comical collection that demands every page be read, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

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