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Jeff VanderMeer: Shriek: An Afterword

Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen is one of my favorite books, a collection of stories and other strange forms (one item is a fictional bibliography, another is a medical report, another is written entirely in code) all set in the fantastic fictional city of Ambergris, built over the caverns of mysterious underground-dwelling mushroom people known as the Gray Caps, and home to the dangerously bacchanalian Festival of the Freshwater Squid, world-famous composer Voss Bender, and a zillion other captivating creative inventions. “The Transformation of Martin Lake” in particular is one of the most arresting stories I’ve ever read.

So I was thrilled to hear, a few years ago, that VanderMeer was returning to Ambergris with the novel Shriek: An Afterword. I bought it as soon as it was released, tore into it… and stopped 2/3 of the way through and didn’t pick it up again. It just didn’t resonate with me the way his earlier work did, and I found myself dutifully chewing my way through it without really enjoying it.

Then VanderMeer recently released a third Ambergris book, Finch, and it got me thinking that I should really give Shriek another shot. So I did, and I enjoyed it a lot more this time. This is a similar relationship to the one I had with Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon; in each case I had anxiously awaited a book, which then turned out to be not quite what I expected, reducing my enjoyment to the extent that I put the book down without finishing it, but then enjoyed it quite a bit on a reread when I understood more what I was in for.

Shriek is quite different from City of Saints and Madmen. Most of the metafictional tricks are gone, replaced by a single one; the story, Janice Shriek’s biography of her brother Duncan, is regularly interspersed with comments from Duncan himself, supplementing and/or contradicting her assertions. This could be pretty cool but it was mostly irritating; rather than adding surprising or world-overturning information to Janice’s observations, Duncan resorts mostly to “Well, it’s more complicated than you give it credit for” excuses. And where I was hoping for more revelations about the nature of the Gray Caps (especially after some teasers early on), the book mostly is concerned with the much less interesting social rise and fall of the two siblings.

But taken on its own terms, as I did on my second read, the book is still pretty interesting, and it did turn out that some exciting stuff happened just after the point where I gave up the first time. So I did enjoy it the second time, and knowing what sort of book it was did help a lot. It still didn’t live up to City of Saints and Madmen, but at least this time I didn’t expect it to.