8/15/2009

Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer

In City Of Saints And Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer first introduced readers to Ambergris, the mysterious, otherworldly city of the book's title. Considered by VanderMeer to be a mosaic novel, City Of Saints was just as easily interpreted as a book of short stories, containing as it did a historical pamphlet about Ambergris, a case study of an inmate in a mental institution, a treatise on freshwater squid, excerpts from a book of art criticism, and a story written in a complex code, as well as several somewhat more conventional stories that straddled the boundary between horror and dark fantasy. As the title indicated, though, what all of the shorter works featured had in common was their setting. VanderMeer returned to this setting with Shriek: An Afterword, a fictional biography of Duncan Shriek, the historian whose pamphlet about Ambergris had been included in City Of Saints And Madmen. Duncan's sister, Janice, wrote the original text of the biography, which was interspersed throughout with editorial comments from Duncan himself. And now, after two highly unusual books set in Ambergris, VanderMeer completes the trilogy with Finch, a hardboiled detective novel with a straightforward, linear structure. I'll say this for VanderMeer; he always keeps his readers guessing.

Finch takes place about a century after Shriek: An Afterword, at a time when the mushroom dwellers of Ambergris have taken over the city. The mushroom dwellers, more informally known as grey caps, lived in Ambergris before humans arrived there. They are around four feet tall, with grey skin and large heads that make them look like a cross between humans and mushrooms. The history of Ambergris is fraught with conflict between human settlers and the mushroom dwellers, as detailed in City Of Saints And Madmen. For our purposes it is enough to acknowledge that the relationship between humans and grey caps is a hostile one, and none of the human residents of Ambergris are happy to be living under grey cap rule.

John Finch, our protagonist, is a detective in the police force run by the grey caps, and is therefore caught between two sides, neither of which trust him. At the beginning of the novel, he's assigned to investigate a double murder, in which the victims are a human man and a mushroom dweller. The murder of a grey cap is unheard of, and Finch's superiors take a keen interest in the case. But investigating a murder for the grey caps has some unusual and disturbing elements. Finch must ingest fungal growths called memory bulbs that the grey caps have caused to sprout from the heads of the victims. By eating them, Finch is given temporary access to the memories of the victims, though in an onrushing flood that doesn't really make sense. The experience leaves Finch shaken and confused.

Finch is uncertain how to approach the task he's been given in a manner that will both provide results and keep him out of trouble. The grey caps and their fungally-modified human agents, the Partials, are breathing down his neck at all times. They don't hesitate to threaten both he and his loved ones, sometimes for reasons Finch can't understand. The case he's investigating is equally opaque, and his investigation takes him in random directions that don't seem to have any connecting thread. He deals with events that seem fraught with meaning he can't divine, comes across objects that may be important clues or meaningless junk. At every turn, he runs afoul of some new faction: rebel groups opposing the grey caps, secret agents for rival states with their own territorial agenda, and others whose roles aren't so clearly defined. Underneath it all, there is the sense that powerful forces are being marshaled, though to what end is unclear. His foreboding predicament is reminiscent of 40s noir films, in which protagonists like Robert Mitchum in "Out Of The Past" or Tom Neal in "Detour" seemed unable to do anything to halt their downward spiral. There's a more surreal edge added to Finch, though, by the disturbing environment in which it takes place.

Ambergris had previously been a modern city, with motor vehicles, electricity, and a vibrant night life that revolved around art, theater, and music. The grey caps were always able to exert some control over the hot, tropical environment of Ambergris. They used their bond with fungal organisms to control varieties of spores and mushrooms, generating a constant low-grade attack on the human city. However, it is only now that they've risen from their longtime subterranean redoubt to reclaim the city that was once theirs that the fungi have really taken control. VanderMeer's descriptions of streets and buildings infested with tiny organic life makes me think of some of David Cronenberg's earlier films; the parasites in "Shivers," the bizarre organic modifications of "Rabid" and "The Brood," even the strangely alive-seeming video game systems of "Existenz," create the same sense of creeping unease that VanderMeer has created here. This is a world in which nature itself seems hellbent on the destruction of humanity.

By setting a noir detective story in this cryptobiological dystopia, VanderMeer creates a novel that is both mystery and fantasy of the darkest sort. Indeed, there are several points in Finch that veer into outright Lovecraftian horror. By the latter half of the book, Finch has realized that the case he's been given is much more deeply rooted than he had any way of knowing. Meanwhile, readers will learn details that reinterpret the events of VanderMeer's first two Ambergris novels in surprising ways. Finch begins as a detective story, but becomes much wider in scope, eventually encompassing the entire history of Ambergris. It both embodies and subverts its chosen genre, and is an excellent conclusion to a fascinating and original trilogy.

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1 Comments:

OpenID lucifal said...

If you like short dark speculative fiction stories you'll probably like Murky Depths

1:25 PM  

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