19 August 2003

Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

Every now and then a writer writes a first novel which feels like a tenth, a novel full of imagination, skilled writing, careful structure, and compelling characters. Jeff VanderMeer's first novel, Veniss Underground is one such book. It is not a perfect novel, it will not appeal to all types of readers, but it is work which must be taken seriously, and labelling its author as "promising" does him an injustice, for he writes with more skill and verve than most people who have published far more books than he.

VanderMeer is not a new author -- he's won the World Fantasy Award and others for his short fiction and poetry, and he's worked as an editor for various publishers and journals for many years. In many ways, I'm grateful he waited so long to write a novel, because the maturity of vision demonstrated by Veniss Underground is a rare thing.

The plot is complicated and fragmentary, and no summary can do the book justice. All a potential reader really needs to know is the story is a sort of science fictional version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, although the similarities are mostly superficial. The story posits a world of genetic manipulation reaching monstrous heights, a world of crime bosses and petty hustlers mingled with struggling artists who are trying to make art from the latest technologies. And, of course, somewhere beyond them all, the very rich, who maintain a certain power over the world. But there's a place where the rich can't reach: the land beneath the streets, levels and levels of underground which grow more Dantesque the deeper they descend.

The story is broken into three sections: the first, told in the first person point of view, is of Nicolas, a failed artist who gets involved in much more than he bargained for when he signed up to work with a shadowy man (creature?) named Quin, known for his genetic manipulations. The second section, somewhat longer, is told in the second person point of view, and "you" are Nicola, Nicolas's sister, who tries to find him after he disappears. The final section, and the longest, told in the third person, is that of Shadrach, a friend of Nicolas's and of Nicola's, a man who emerged from the underground and now descends into it again to try to save the people he cares for.

What makes Veniss Underground compelling is less its plot, or even its characters, than its vivid landscape and lyrical, creative language. VanderMeer loves language, he languishes in it, and yet he doesn't ever let it get beyond him -- there aren't really any Faulknerian moments of stream of consciousness verging on babble or blather, but rather a sensibility toward the crafting of sentences which simultaneously convey information and have an aesthetic appeal. The novel is a quick read, and a compelling one, but it should, perhaps, be read slowly, its gems savored, for devouring it all too quickly will make it seem thinner than it is.

Are there weaknesses? Certainly, but I expect each reader will consider different elements to be faults, because the novel has so much to offer that it is difficult to settle down and simply appreciate it for what it is. For me, the weakest part was the first one, from Nicholas's point of view, because I found the slang he used to be gimmicky. Unlike some authors, VanderMeer has a specific point he's trying to make with the slang, and a specific reason for using it which is tied to the character, but I've never liked any made-up slang, except, perhaps for that of Clockwork Orange because it was so creative and so plentiful that it was woven into the basic fabric of the book. [Update: Jeff VanderMeer just pointed out to me, after reading this, that since Nicholas is a failed slang artist, his slang is therefore intentionally bad. Duly noted.] Later, I felt that Shadrach's journey into the Underground went on a little too long, and the plot seemed to push us forward from one horrorific genetic nightmare to another, as if walking through a museum. Readers who thrive on imagery will probably find this to be a real strength of the book, but by that point in the story I wanted more of other things -- a change of language or style, an change of character, something. I'm not sure about the decision to make each section substantially longer than the previous one, either; I loved the progression of points of view, but wanted more time with both Nicholas and Nicola, and a bit less with Shadrach.

In many ways, these are quibbles, and quite personal ones. I don't imagine many other readers will have loved the same parts of the book as I, nor had reservations about the same parts I did. That, for me, is the wonder of rich literature such as Veniss Underground: it is not perfect, but it is better that it isn't, for perfect isn't nearly messy enough for my tastes. This is a book to read and think about, to argue over and dissect, to read aloud for sheer pleasure and read silently, late at night, to creep yourself out.

Veniss Underground reads to me like a little brother of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, one of the best and most satisfying SF novels I've ever read. Mieville's book is long and complex where VanderMeer's is short, tough, focused, and VanderMeer has, to my ears, a better sense of language (and less proclivity for pulpy turns of phrase) than Mieville. Both works are brilliant, both are worthy of any reader's attention, both are magisterial exercises of imagination, and both contain a beautiful sense of truth and meaning.