City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Some Fantastic Metafiction
“City of Saints and Madmen” (“COSAM”) not only explores a world of New Weird author’s Jeff VanderMeer’s creation, it gives a detailed insight into the method of his creativity.
It’s not just a fantasy novel, but a highly accessible and rewarding exercise in metafiction.
It’s a composite of works: short stories or perhaps novellas, fictional notes, fragments of drafts, reminders, observations, word sketches, drawings, illustrations, doodles, dream diary entries, the history of the fantastic city Ambergris, a family history of the Hoegbottons, a scientific monograph about giant freshwater squid, art criticism, little magazine articles, records of disputes between rival historians and critics, transcripts of witness statements, psychiatric reports, coded messages, correspondence, even a glossary, and footnotes.
In a word, artifacts. Or arty facts. Two words.
Pictures at an Exhibition
VanderMeer is an exhibitionist, he is so incredibly, no, fantastically, talented, and these bits and pieces are the pictures at his exhibition.
The most analogous experience I have had is “Nick Cave: The Exhibition”, a collection of personal possessions, notebooks, drawings, posters, photos, objet d’art and ephemera.
While the apparent object of both artists was something else (a novel, song lyrics and music), both collections or anthologies add up to a snapshot or a mirror image of the soul of the artist, which in turn is a mirror turned around and focused on our souls.
In the works of Jeff VanderMeer and Nick Cave, you can find almost anything you need to know about your self.
That is, if your world can accommodate a little Philip K. Dick or Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace in it.
The Juxtaposition of the Elements
"What remains obscure, even to those of us who knew him, is how and why [Martin] Lake managed the extraordinary transformation from pleasing but facile collages and acrylics, to the luminous oils—both fantastical and dark, moody and playful—that would come to define both the artist and Ambergris."
“COSAM” is an assemblage or collage of disparate elements that VanderMeer works into something luminous.
For me, a simple juxtaposition is not enough. You don’t sit two or more characters together, unless you expect some chemical reaction to occur and your expectation is satisfied.
This is the Way the World is Built
I tend to allow an author like David Mitchell to get away with loose or almost thread-bare connections.
VanderMeer doesn’t need the same sense of forgiveness.
His elements are all more overtly connected to the theme of Ambergris, a city that doesn’t seem to be as developed as the modern world, but still doesn’t seem to resemble any city from the past, apart from aspects of the Byzantine Empire.
This is VanderMeer’s way of world-building.
Clearly, there are different styles, subject matter and perspectives. However, what is important is the accretion of detail. We readers can synthesise it into an understanding of his world.
In a sense, what is important here is not so much a hero and their journey, but the comprehension of a world, and perhaps the manner in which and extent to which it consists of saints and madmen.
From Prosaic to Mosaic
For me, therefore, it's like a painting or mosaic that takes shape by the construction of discrete sections on the canvas or board, without needing to have a chronological order or a narrative imposed over the subject matter.
This, too, is the defence against any argument that there is too much or that it is sloppy or excessive or repetitive.
I'm prepared to let VanderMeer paint his painting or assemble his mosaic the way he wants to.
Also, I'll let him choose the sheer physical size of his canvas or board. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to building worlds.
The Illumination of the Psyche
"Lake ’s tones are, as Venturi has noted, ‘resonant rather than bright, and the light contained in them is not so much a physical as a psychological illumination.’"
Within the fantasy genre, the novel shines a light on desire, love, imagination and fantasy.
It originated one night in 1993, when VanderMeer awoke envisaging a scene from the novel with “super-heated intensity”, as if in “a vision or waking dream”.
It was like he had a key that could open a locked door and “found an entire fantastical city in my head”.
While he draws the cityscape with precision, he also draws its emotional landscape with expressionist accuracy.
I Desire Your Love
At the heart of the scene in VanderMeer’s head was a man’s desire for a woman he sees sitting in a window, the basis of what became the first story, “Dravid in Love”.
It explores just how much desire, lust and love occur within the head of the Subject, regardless of the existence, knowledge, awareness, consent or encouragement of the Object.
Somebody who convinces themselves that they are in love can build a whole fantasy world around their love, without any real participation by the second character.
In a sense, desire and lust can make us imagine that we are in love.
In VanderMeer’s eyes, desire influences and distorts our perception. It can result in an illusion or self-delusion.
Our gaze can turn us into madmen.
In contrast, two of the characters with whom VanderMeer seems to have the greatest sympathy are blind, possibly because they cannot physically see in order to be deluded.
Perhaps they (and only they) are the saints.
I Interpret You
VanderMeer extends the concept to interpretation in "The Transformation of Martin Lake", a story that consists of art criticism, on the one hand, where the critic draws inferences about the motivation of the artist, while, on the other hand, a separate narrative strand reveals what their true motivation was.
Just as a man can sit in front of a woman in a window and draw particular inferences, a critic can sit in front of an art work and believe that they understand its origin, intent or effect.
They can then perpetuate their interpretation as definitive, regardless of its truth.
Again, VanderMeer suggests that we should not rely on just one view to establish the truth of the matter.
Perhaps, there can be no truth in a story told by or in the first person, unless it is verified by the second person.
We are, all of us, unreliable narrators.
My Darkness and I
These tendencies occur within relatively normal behavior, but they can also constitute either neurotic or psychotic behavior.
The problem is accentuated when the person is an artist.
Their role is to build a credible world where these forces and tensions are at play.
In VanderMeer’s words:
"...the world has to be metaphorically and metaphysically interesting, which means you can’t be too consistent. Everything can’t be tidy and pat, and it should be in flux—it should be, in a way, alive. Above all else, to be interesting, a fantastical city should be a reflection of the writer’s obsessions and subconscious impulses."
Writers have to objectify their obsessions and impulses, and then give life to them.
In the process, they shift them from inside to outside their self. They create an Other.
Then they begin to struggle and wrestle with the Other.
One of VanderMeer’s characters describes the Other as “the Darkness”, which then takes on the form of a manta ray.
We now have a situation where a person, an artist must effectively struggle with a lethal marine life form.
I Wouldn’t Miss This for Squids
VanderMeer doesn’t just use manta rays, elsewhere the antagonists are squids and mushrooms.
Whatever their form, they represent the aggressive, threatening Other, the Alien, the Aggressor, the part of our Selves that threatens to undermine and destroy us.
In VanderMeer's imagined world, perhaps the Id is a Squid.
A Disremembrance of Things Past
So with all this delusion and darkness, bad and traumatic things can and do happen.
If we do bad things, we will feel guilt or remorse, and we will want to relieve or assuage our guilt.
We don’t always deal with it by penance, sometimes we deny our actions and attempt to obliterate them from our memory.
However, often, the subconscious works against us by resurrecting our guilt in our dreams and nightmares.
"The Strange Case of X"
Most of the above subject matter draws attention to the self-consciousness and sub-consciousness of everyday living.
VanderMeer explores the implications for writing (and, by extension, reading) in the most metafictional story, "The Strange Case of X".
Whether or not “X” is an alter ego, he has written works with the same titles as components of COSAM.
He also seems to have committed a crime for which he has been charged and exonerated by a jury, which believed his “story”. Now he is being interviewed to establish his sanity.
His defence is that the alleged crime happened only in Ambergris, a fictitious world, not in “real life”.
This world took over his life for many years, as readers demanded more and more material about Ambergris, but now he has ceased to believe in it.
X tries to escape the burden and the guilt by denial.
Imagine My Amazement
Paradoxically, VanderMeer perpetuates the fiction by writing the story, a story within a story, a disturbing spiral from which the reader eventually has to extract their own mind.
This is easier said than done. Thus, the novel starts with a gaze and ends with a maze.
There is no escape. You have to return to or remain in the world of Ambergris. It is our cage. And we can either sing or scream.
Whatever, VanderMeer has created a novel and a world that are "both fantastical and dark, moody and playful".
I can relate to that.
"’All writers write,’ he whispered. ‘All writers edit,’ he muttered. ‘All writers have a little darkness in them,’ he sobbed. ‘All writers must sometimes destroy their creations,’ he shouted.
"But only one writer has a darkness that cannot be destroyed, he thought to himself as he clutched his wife to him and kissed her and sought comfort in her, for she was the most precious thing in his life and he was afraid—afraid of loss, afraid of the darkness, and, most of all, afraid of himself."
"I will not believe in hallucinations."
The Ways of Love
The Blindness of Irene
I see your beauty.
I'm blessed you, though blind, can feel
Mine with your fingers.
Died Pretty - "Ambergris"
Jesus And Mary Chain - "Darklands"
"I'm going to the darklands
To talk in rhyme
With my chaotic soul
As sure as life means nothing
And all things end in nothing
And heaven I think
Is too close to hell
I want to move, I want to go
I want to go
Oh something won't let me
Go to the place
Where the darklands are
And I awake from dreams
To a scary world of screams
And heaven I think
Is too close to hell."
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - "Saint Huck"
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - "Lie Down Here & Be My Girl"
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - "Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?"
"I remember a girl so bold and so bright
Loose-limbed and laughing and brazen and bare
Sits gnawing her knuckles in the chemical light
O where do we go now but nowhere
You come for me now with a cake that you've made
Ravaged avenger with a clip in your hair
Full of glass and bleach and my old razorblades
O where do we go now but nowhere
O wake up, my love, my lover wake up
O wake up, my love, my lover wake up"
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