Review: Finch by Jeff Vandermeer
Posted May 3, 2011on:
Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer
Published in 2009
Where I got it: purchased new
why I read it: have enjoyed previous Vandermeer books
John Finch hates his job. Hates watching his beautiful city of Ambergris crumble, destroyed, looted, rebuilt into something it shouldn’t be. He hates his “detective work”, informing on his friends and neighbors to his grey cap boss whose smile is all teeth, the Partials who follow him everywhere, recording everything he says and does with their fungally recording eyes. Hates what a fungal parasite is slowly but irrevocably doing to his best friend Wyte, the only man who knows all of Finch’s secrets. Hates how he always falls back to playing both sides, in hopes he can keep his friends and loved ones alive.
But most of all, Finch hates that there is no escape. Not from Ambergris, not from the grey caps, and not from who and what he is.
His latest cast, a double murder, defies description. Found in a nondescript apartment: One dead adult human male, one very dead grey cap of undetermined sex or age (if such a thing can ever be determined), amputated at the waist. Grey caps are pretty hard to kill, maybe he should take notes. The memory bulbs of the dead are useless, offering only hallucinations and impossible places. Through his network of spies and snitches, Finch learns who the dead man was. Someone impossible. Someone who couldn’t have been there because he’s been dead for a hundred years.
Finch and Wyte investigate and learn the mystery is about much more than just the dead man, it’s about what the dead man can do. Wyte is dying, has exacted a promise from Finch to help him, when the time comes. Wyte can’t fight the thing inside him much longer, and they both know he won’t go quietly.
I suppose I could call this Vandermeer’s take on the noir police procedural. It’s all the rage, everyone’s doing it. No put intended, but that would be a complete cop-out. Yes, this is a noir-ish murder mystery, but it is so much more. In Vandermeer’s deft hand, and chosen style of clipped yet seductive prose, a basic murder mystery turns into something surreal and horrific, dark and visceral. If this is a police procedural, it’s one where “procedure” means not dying, and where the “police” are anyone willing to snitch on their neighbors. The Ambergris of Finch is not a pretty place. Every moment, John Finch, and by extension the reader, is feeling unsettled, unnerved, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the door to be kicked in, and generally more paranoid.
This is my second time reading Finch, and it took longer than I expected to read it. Because quite frankly, even the second time around it still creeped the shit out of me. But in a good way, I swear!
Although Finch is the third book in Vandermeer’s Ambergris cycle, they can be read as stand alones. Following different 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 inhabitants) and Shriek: an Afterword (featuring a dysfunctional brother and sister). I feel that Finch will make more sense if you read City of Saints and Madmen first, but it is certainly not a requirement.
If you’re a Vandermeer virgin, right about now you are probably asking yourself “what the hell is a grey cap?” Before Ambergris was settled, it was inhabited by a few tiny hunter gatherer tribes of humans, and a large-ish population of intelligent sentient mushrooms. The height of a large child, they were uncommunicative, nocturnal, and lived underground. As the city filled up with humans, the “grey caps” moved into their burrows, into the shadows, taking advantage of their underground tunnels to traverse the city. They had no interest in humans. And then something went horribly, horribly wrong. Genocide, a few civil wars, and an uprising later, the grey caps are firmly in control of Ambergris, and running the city their way.
I’d be tempted to call this fungus-punk, but “punk” usually implies technology. The grey caps don’t really use technology - chemicals are shared via fruiting bodies, information is shared via tendrils and networks of growth and spores. Everything with them is biological, metabolic, ecological. Equally disgusting, beautiful, and practical, and they want to survive too.
Although he’s getting more to be known as an editor, I feel Jeff Vandermeer is one of fantasy’s most underrated writers. Most of his writings have a tinge of horror, but he easily turns horror, even Wyte’s dehumanizing condition into a thing that can be seen as beauty. I wonder if his point, in his style of writing is to say that everything is horrific, everything is beautiful, everything is the truth, everything is the not-truth. It simply depends on your point of view.
I don’t know how else to describe Vandermeer besides you just need to read his stuff. Blending science fiction with fantasy, horror with mystery and history, the works of Jeff Vandermeer are more events you viscerally experience, rather than books you simply read and then forget about. If you’ve recently found yourself saying “everything is the same, I need something new!” Jeff Vandermeer is your cure.