Its difficult to know where to begin describing Jeff VanderMeer's remarkable "City of Saints and Madmen"; with it's interweaving plot lines cutting across stories, one is never sure where one section begins and another leaves off. Moreover, the world of Ambergris is so fully realized, and yet so willfully fanciful, one can never quite find one's footing. In the hands of a less skilled writer, all of this would add up to a bizarre mish-mash, but VanderMeer somehow weaves it together into one unified work.
Moreover, this is a book for booklovers; the arrangement is a work of art in and of itself. The use of fonts, illustrations, footnotes, even the binding adds to the illusion. The cover itself is remarkable, as it contains both a short story and a hilarious fictional biography of the author. VanderMeer and his publisher have succeeded admirably in creating a volume that harkens to an era when books were not only repositories of writing, but valuable for what surrounded the writing.
And what writing it is! VanderMeer flashes descriptive powers that border on the hallucinogenic; the pages absolutely drip with the essence of Ambergris. From the giant squid that inhabit the River Moth, to the serenely vicious Grey Caps, the author has produced a world that is both bizarrely foreign and completely believable at the same time. One of the keys to this success is VanderMeer's wise decision to left some things unsaid; for every piece of information about Ambergris that he doles out, he holds back ten, leaving the reader craving more, but also making his world believable because of its very complexity. In this regard (at least), he is the equal of China Mieville, who has likewise created a world that is both foreign and familiar.
As for the stories themselves, I could spend the entire review on any one of them, but given the constraints of the medium, I'll just touch on some of the highlights. First off is the cover story, which I mentioned above. Although necessarily brief, it immediately introduces the reader to VanderMeer's talent with descriptive phrases like "muscular water". Moreover, it reveals two key things about VanderMeer's writing. The first is that while Ambergris may be fanciful, it is still every bit as brutal (and as beautiful) as our own. The second is VanderMeer's fascinating penchant for self-reference; he seems both fascinated and puzzled by his creation. The result is a desire to nurture it, but a fear of being defined, or even consumed, by it.
Next is "Dradin in Love" which reveals Ambergris in all its glory and horror. Detailing the angst of the eponymous Dradin, it is by turns touching and horrifying. This is by no means a conventional love story; its conclusion questions whether benign illusion is preferable to brutal truth. As with most of these stories, there are illuminating facts dropped elsewhere in the book, particularly one about Dradin's time as a jungle missionary.
Next is a fictional history that details the founding of Ambergris and which is perhaps my favorite story. It is incredibly detailed, richly textured and deftly written. VanderMeer uses this "historical" approach to write a story that is maddeningly incomplete, yet which provides the foundation for much of the rest of the book.
After that is "The Transformation of Martin Lake" which is perhaps the strongest story in terms of message. In it, VanderMeer seems to be commenting on the futility of not just criticism, but history itself. Essentially, since all human action is informed by the mind, and since the mind of another is inherently unknowable, there is a sort of transitive effect whereby all human action, and hence history, is at best a confused muddle. At worst, it is either an ignorant or willful sham perpetrated by those with an agenda or those too stupid to interpret even the limited snapshot into other lives that we are granted.
The second half of the book falls under the bailiwick of "The Strange Case of Mr. X" which is an account of VanderMeer's stay in an Ambergrisian mental hospital. It sounds horribly contrived, but VanderMeer pulls it off nicely. Each story in this latter half is ostensibly an item found in the author's cell after his puzzling disappearance. But far from being distinct, they rather from a whole that can only be appreciated once one has read all the way through them.
They range from an hysterical monograph on the King Squid that inhabit the River Moth to an encoded story. What they all have in common is a bizarre symbiosis that offers insight into each story at the most surprising moments. For example, the aforementioned squid study rewards the reader of the footnotes with a rather poignant glimpse at the "author's" life. Likewise, the coded story isn't just a gimmick; the rather gruesome circumstances of its origin mandate a brutal decoding that mirror the words revealed on the page.
In the end, there's not much more that I can except that "City of Saints and Madmen" is not only one of the most beautifully rendered books I have encountered, but one of the most supremely written. Not since reading Bradbury's collections of short stories have I encountered a collection that feeds off itself so effectively. It reads like a novel even as it sucks the reader into maddeningly brief glimpses of Ambergris. This is a must read, and ranks at the top of the list of books I've read in the last year.