15 May 2004

Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer

Mass media should be gut shot and left out in the desert to die, he decided, looking again at the page proofs on his desk.

"Experiment #25"
by Jeff VanderMeer
A diverse menagerie of squid, mushrooms, Incan emperors, virulent vines, seers, murderers, and metaphysical fictioneers, Secret Life will be arriving on bookstore shelves any week now, a treasure chest thumped down amidst mass-market baubles.

If you have read City of Saints and Madmen and Veniss Underground, you already know Jeff VanderMeer is a magnificent writer, one capable of constructing beautiful sentences and unleashing them in structures where they dazzle like fireworks during an acid trip. What you may not have known is that he is capable of writing an affecting story (in dialect) about the blues, that he writes magic realism as if he were born in Peru, that historian John Julius Norwich has been as much of an influence on his penchant for footnoting as Borges (though Norwich doesn't have a bookstore named after him in Ambergris).

If you haven't read much VanderFiction until now, Secret Life is as good a place to start as any -- more varied than Veniss (though often equally intense), less labyrinthine than City of Saints and Madmen, more fulfilling than The Day Dali Died. Though the book didn't take my breath away with the same force my first reading of City of Saints did, that may be because my expectations for VanderMeer's work are absurdly high, and a short story collection of such variety as this inevitably has less cumulative force than a collection of tales set in one universe.

There is not now, and perhaps never has been, a writer within the genres of speculative fiction who is more broadly talented than Jeff VanderMeer, and Secret Life proves that fact better than any other single volume. There are other writers who are better at specific types of fiction, specific styles or milieus that they have made their own, but VanderMeer is a master ventriloquist while also being a master carpenter, constructing complex and beautiful homes for all the voices which crawl out of his imagination. In Secret Life a story such as "Greensleeves", a graceful and even sentimental fantasy,is followed by "Detectives and Cadavers", a surreal bit of science fiction, which is then followed by "Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist (Note the blood-red discoloration in the lower left corner)", which is subtitled (or is it sub-subtitled?) "An excerpt from Hoegbottom's COMPREHENSIVE TRAVEL GUIDE TO THE SOUTHERN CITY OF AMBERGRIS, Chapter 77: An In-depth Explanation for the City's Apparent Lack of Sanitation Workers (And Why Tourists Should Not Be Afraid)". The story lives up to its title.

The settings of these stories tell much about VanderMeer's ambitions and talents. The reader follows these tales from Florida to Latin America to Cambodia, from London to India, from Veniss to Ambergris. Each story has a density to it which other writers should envy and emulate, and readers should appreciate by savoring only one or two stories at a sitting. The wonders of this book are many, and are revealed by patient, joyful reading and rereading.

If we could create truly perfect sentences, we would destroy the world: it would fold in on itself like a pricked hot air balloon and cease to be: poof!, undone, unmade, unlived, in the harsh glacial light of a reality more real than itself.

"Learning to Leave the Flesh"
VanderMeer's sentences are often weighty with surprising word choices, making them difficult to skim because each clause is boobytrapped against complacency, but nevertheless his prose doesn't feel much more "experimental" than John Updike's. VanderMeer is a far more interesting writer than Updike, however, because his relatively well-behaved sentences often gather together in unruly groups of paragraphs, using the conventions of fiction like the kids in Graham Greene's "The Destructors" use a house. In his recent chronicle of how City of Saints and Madmen came to be written and published, VanderMeer said he wrote "Learning to Leave the Flesh" after attending the Clarion Writer's Conference and wanting to write a story to defy all the supposed "rules" he'd been exposed to at Clarion. The best stories in Secret Life might also fit such an aspiration.

Consider, for instance, the title story, which is a collection of interlinked fragments about life in a strange office building. There is, I suppose, a plot to the story -- a stubborn plant snakes its way through the building, eventually destroying it -- but it's less plot than device, a hat rack for a tea party in Wonderland. Some characters learn things, but few learn anything of much importance, and any epiphanies are epiphenomenal. Entire pages are, at least from a traditional point of view, extraneous, but joyfully so, because this is a story where the tributaries have magic water filtered from the mainstream. The reader is invited to wallow in the pools and eddies rather than punch the timeclock at every port. The journey matters more than the destination, but the destination is a resonant, melancholy, and deeply affecting one.

"Secret Life" is conservative, though, compared to "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid". Jeff VanderMeer has much in common with writers such as Daniel DeFoe and Mark Twain, who gloried in dressing their fiction in the clothes of other genres: newspaper articles, memoirs, travelogues, etc. Ostensibly a newspaper article, "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid" will likely try readers' patience, unless they are as obsessed with squid as VanderMeer, but it is a remarkable experiment, and readers familiar with Ambergris will find some interesting conjunctions and disjunctions with certain happenings within that fabled city.

More successful experiments, it seems to me, produced "The Machine" and "The City", two of the most imagistic and mysterious stories in a book brewed from images and mysteries. These are stories which don't dictate any single "meaning", but rather exist as objects of the imagination, linguistic artifacts that dizzy the reader's synapses instead of connecting them. Such stories are alienating not in the Shklovskian sense of making the familiar unfamiliar, but rather in the way Beckett's fiction is alienating: by using familiar words and objects within a universe of such focused perception that landmarks fail to reveal themselves. Using the techniques of science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, VanderMeer goes Beckett one better, alienating his characters from their environment by plunging them into deeply subjective inner worlds, but in weird and fantastical landscapes rather than bare ones. In such stories, the imaginary exterior world consists of hints and inferences acting as stimuli on the characters' thoughts and delusions.

While many of the stories in Secret Life will probably not prove to be crowd pleasers to compete with Star Trek novelizations, the majority of stories should be accessible to readers who like their fiction to stick to predictable forms, with character arcs and linear chronologies. Indeed, there are a couple of masterpieces of such stories available here, particularly "Flight Is for Those Who Have Not Yet Crossed Over" and "The Bone Carver's Tale", both of which merit a wide readership.

Secret Life ends with "Experiment #25 from the Book of Winter: The Croc and You", a bit of metafiction that brings various strands of VanderMeer's writing together: traditional and innovative techniques, "nonfictional" and fictional narratives, humorous and terrifying images, and speculations on the nature of imagination, reality, truth, and emotion. It is a fine and appropriate ending to a book of remarkable skill and beauty.

Update 5/16/04: Order Secret Life from Mark Ziesing Books and look what you'll get in addition to the book:
You'll get an original, handwritten, short story by VanderMeer written especially for you and produced in an edition of one. That's right, drop us a line and tell us what you do for a living and give us one other interesting aside about you and your life and we'll forward that information to VanderMeer who will write a mini-story about your own secret life and will send it directly to you.
If you can resist this, you're a stronger person than I...