the Little Red Reviewer

City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer

Posted on: September 26, 2010

I am slowly working my way up to Finch, really I am! If you’re new to Vandermeer, start with Shriek, An Afterword, then read City of Saints and Madmen, then you’ll be good and ready for Finch.

* * * * *

At least in the version I got a hold of, the oddness began right from the start. The two covers of the book were a story unto themselves, describing a visitor to Vandermeer’s port city of Ambergris. This visitor falls out of the ferry, and is clutching a copy of Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen to his chest. Stranger yet, the inside cover speaks of Mr. Vandermeer’s untimely disappearance, and the strange notes he left in his wake. Turn a few pages, and under the “Also written by” list, many non existent tomes appear. This isn’t false advertising, it’s foreplay.

Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, a.k.a. The Book of Ambergris is exactly that: a collection of short stories in and about the port city of Ambergris (and yes, you find out how the city managed to get such a beautiful name that means something so disgusting. Look it up), her history, her religions, her politics, with minor cameos by Janice and Duncan Shriek, of Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword.

Reading this book is like being in a haunted house, populated by the friendly ghosts of all the relatives you wish you could have met, but you can’t understand what they are saying. It’s like being in the Sistine chapel, and although it’s emtpy and abandonded, but you can still the chanting if you don’t try to listen to hard. No matter how much time I spend with this book, I don’t know if I’ll ever learn all the secrets of Ambergris.

I’ll give some reviews of selected stories, but I want to plagarize something I wrote on a different blog a while ago:

* * * * * *

“I’d probably be OK with if I woke up in Ambergris (note to self: re-read The Strange Case of X until it really scares the crap out of you). Very cool town, has some interesting indigenous creatures, lots of cats, it’s own culture, religion, history. . . beautiful city. I wonder if I could rent a condo there for a few weeks in the autumn?

I kept wondering why I was looking for reasons not to read City of Saints and Madmen. Was there something wrong with stories? No, they were incredible. Unlikeable characters? No, not that either (well, Janice can get a bit annoying, but that’s just the way she is). Where the stories beautiful, scary, soul-wrenching, pity-inducing nail-biters? Why, yes, they were! So why was I looking for any excuse not to finish this book, instead of taking it with me everywhere, and being late to work because I was too busy reading it?

Reading City of Saints and Madmen is like being dumped in the Louvre and told you’ve got 6 hours to see everything. So hop to it! Wouldn’t you just sit there, staring at wall, completely overwhelmed, with no idea where to start? Sure, you could just start somewhere, but it wouldn’t matter, because you could either study one or two pieces of art with the attention they deserve, or rush through the museum, and not actually get to see the details of anything. That’s what getting this book from the library is like. It’s not due till next weekend, but I still feel like no matter how many hours I spend with it, I’ll still be rushing though it. “

* * * * *

do you get what I mean?

Onto a few selected story reviews. Ok, only two, as the best parts came after the stories themselves.

The Transformation of Martin Lake

Janice Shriek, part time historian, part time art gallery manager, part time busy body nosing into everyone else business, and assuming she’s far smarter than she really is, once wrote a “short overview of the Art of Martin Lake and his painting Invitation to a beheading” (Sorry, Janice doesn’t do short titles), in which she analyzes three of Mr. Lake’s most famous paintings, and makes educated guesses about why he was simply a mediocre painter before the creation of these specific works, and one of Ambergris’ most sought after, most famous artists forever after that. How does a man go from average to amazing overnight? Janice herself had once rejected his paintings for her gallery.

If only she knew the real story. That Martin, a despressed, desperate man, hoping against hope for a commission, really does receive an Invitation To a Beheading. The man whose throat he is forced to slit is a powerhouse in the city, a power that Martin and his artist friends are ambivelent to, yet effected by. Perhaps this is just the impetus Martin needed, to get those creative juices flowing! How else would he have gotten the inspiration to become the city’s most beloved artist?

Of course, all of Janice’s educated guesses about the inspiration for Lake’s gruesome paintings are incorrect, and this shows something about her character as well. She is also trapped in mediocrity, in a comfort zone she has no interest in leaving.

I’m not saying an artist should kill someone to get inspired. . . but it’s a good story.

The Strange Case of X

Vandermeer is known for his stories that take place in Ambergris. Perhaps he wants to write about other people, other places, but his crazed fans want more Ambergris!

Imagine waking up in a mental institution. The doctor asks if you know why you’re there, and you say “Yes, I know why I’m here, I made up a world, and after a while I believed I was living in it. But i’m better now, I know it doesn’t exist. I’d like to go back to my family, please.” You have a nice conversation with the Doctor, who asks you about some of your recent travels. You happily comply, giving details about recent trips to different major cities in the United States, you spouse, your child, your pets, your home, some friends of the family. Everything seems to be going so well.

The Doctor asks you about the fire. Time to face facts. Did you save someone from getting hit by a car, or did you push them into a fire? Or maybe in front of the oncoming vehicle? You begin to get confused about what happened. But you’ve regained your sanity, can’t you just go home to your family, and take the chance of facing charges for involuntary manslaughter, if in fact you did cause harm to come to someone?

Then the other shoe falls. The doctor tells you he’s never heard of New York City, or Chicago, or Phoenix, or airplanes, or e-mail. He tells you he’s not sure when you can see your family, because in this city, they don’t exist. He tells you the name of the city. It’s the one you made up.

But you do have friends here, who believe they can help you escape. . .

The Appendices of City of Saints and Madmen take up the second half of the book. They include useful things, like a glossary of terms of importance in Ambergris, and even more fascinating things, like further details of the conversations between the impovershed Dr. V., and his truly insane patient who thinks he can just click his heels three times and return to someplace called the United States of something or other, and then a few weeks later, the man did truly disappear, without a trace! Unlike the stories that were left in his cell. One, which includes only lists of numbers, some kind of code, perhaps. It’s up to you, the reader, to figure out the rest of this story. See what I mean, that it never ends? But you’ve got the book, figure it out!

I’ll shut up now, as i’ve got some decoding to do. And don’t forget the read the “warning against decoding” from the publishers, on the last page. It’s hilarious.

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2 Responses to "City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer"

I’ve had this one out from the library, but never read it. I’m going to take your advice and try Shriek first. Well, someday. *grin* Nice (if a bit odd) review!

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[...] characters at different times, and written in very different styles, the other two books are City of Saints and Madmen (short stories and vignettes offering a history of the city and it’s famous and infamous [...]

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