Veniss Overground

I just reread one of the earliest posts on this site, a review of Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground, because today I picked up a copy of the new U.S. edition from Bantam, which has a magnificent cover and collects some of the Veniss stories originally included in Secret Life.

The review is not particularly well written or insightful -- it is weakened by the fact that I had just returned to reading SF after years away, and I had been so excited by the directions certain writers were pushing the field toward that many sentences suffer from a bad case of hyperbolic gush. But my basic opinion of the book, sans gush, remains the same. In many ways, I'm glad to have reread the review, because now having read so much more of Jeff's work, I'd begun to develop the feeling that Veniss was a minor element of his oeuvre, when it's really quite a good piece of writing in and of itself. (Yes, I still dislike the slang, but it's my problem, not the writer's.) Because the Ambergris material that makes up City of Saints and Madmen (itself to be released in the U.S. in a new edition at the beginning of the year) is so rich and vast, I had focused over the past couple of years on it, and had not given a lot of thought to Veniss, but looking at it again now, I realize that this was a mistake. Plenty of images and moments from Veniss remain vivid in my mind now, despite my having read hundreds of books since last reading all of Veniss Underground. That's often what I most value about a book -- to call something "haunting" is some of the highest praise I know, because life is busy, and images and words bombard us all constantly. For a few images and words to lodge themselves in my memory for more than the length of a book is rare and marvelous, and it adds depth to the experience of living.

When I wrote the Veniss review, I didn't know Jeff VanderMeer at all, though we have since become friends. When he emailed me after I posted those thoughts on the book (mostly to explain his reasons for the slang), it gave me an opportunity to tell him that we'd actually corresponded before -- I was about fourteen, I think, and he had just founded a magazine called Jabberwocky that lasted for two issues. I read about it in the market listings in Writer's Digest and sent some awful story to him, and got back a long personal rejection explaining everything that was wrong with what I'd written. It was the first note of any length I'd ever gotten from an editor, and I wrote back, explaining that I was 14 and wanted to be Isaac Asimov. Jeff offered advice of various sorts (grow sideburns, study biochemistry), and I bought a copy of the magazine. From then on, I paid attention to his name, and I remember feeling like I had some connection to royalty when a couple years later he won a World Fantasy Award for "The Transformation of Martin Lake". Buying a copy of Veniss at a crowded bookstore today, I felt again a little touch of that adolescent wonder, but this time it was overshadowed by the joy of seeing a friend's accomplishment.

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