science fiction | Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer, $24.95, Tor Books, 352 pages
Jeff VanderMeer's novel "Shriek: An Afterword" is, in many ways, an attack on the very idea of unmediated Truth. It is a book that could have existed 100 years ago. Early reviews have compared the novel to Mark Z. Danielweski's "House of Leaves," a recent novel lauded for its hallucinatory premise and its complex, radical structure. Such a comparison is easy to make: Both works include many-layered narratives that pretend to be books, subject to the editorial process of other authors, which invade the text at random moments. Both books incorporate fantastic elements; both books contain mysteries, and hint at mysteries not completely explored on the page. But where Danliewski is content to hint at the paucity of traditional narrative forms through stark minimalism and faux-academic writing, "Shriek" charges headlong in the opposite direction, nearly drowning us in evocative detail and complex, nuanced world-building. It is an exciting, challenging, and often frustrating reading experience that I recommend unequivocally.
The primary storyline within "Shriek" is the main conceit of the text: that "Shriek" is a biographical, more-than-occasionally autobiographical book written by the character Janice Shriek about the life of her brother, Duncan. The novel, like many of VanderMeer's shorter (and connected, but independent) works, takes place in the imaginal city of Ambergris, which one could argue is the true protagonist of the book. VanderMeer eschews most of the tired clichés of genre fantasy when constructing Ambergris: here, aggressive capitalism is practiced at the barrel of a gun; the conspicuously wealthy consume art scenes (and artists) with feverish intensity; addiction is a very real facet of many lives; and vague political entities play games with the lives of the city's inhabitants. If this sounds like Istanbul or New York, allow one more distinguishing detail: the sewers of Ambergris are populated by a native species that resembles humanoid mushrooms, whose relationship to the human inhabitants of Ambergris is, at best, fraught and murky.
Janice Shriek's opening pages set the stage: Her brother, a minor yet somewhat infamous historian, is missing, presumed dead. She has apparently come to a crossroads in her own life, and is writing a biography of her brother for many reasons, the most obvious of which is to clear his name of recent slanders and to vindicate some of his more outlandish academic theories.
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But very soon, as the book progresses from the siblings' drab yet privileged childhood to their respective professional beginnings, two things become clear: Janice is far more interested in writing about her own troubled life than she is in writing about Duncan, and, more important, Duncan is not dead. He has stumbled upon his sister's book and inserted editorial notes into "Shriek," determined to correct perceived inaccuracies and to fill in data his sister might have missed.
It is this last writerly gambit that gives the novel its weight and narrative momentum. As Duncan's commentary very literally begins to invade the host organism of the main text, we are often given two contradictory views of the same event. VanderMeer avoids the easy path of making Duncan the voice of "reason" amid his sister's myopic self-indulgence -- indeed, the careful reader will find that Duncan is almost certainly mistaken (or perhaps lying outright) at various points in the story. This tension -- between sister and brother, observed truth and truth, editor and writer, past and present -- builds as the novel's events become more and more significant, not just to the Shrieks and their coteries of admirers, but to every inhabitant of the city of Ambergris and beyond.
"Shriek" is a fascinating and enjoyable book, and one that provides the rarest of reading experiences: Once finished, you will find yourself wondering when you can revisit it, and wondering how the second experience will differ from the first. That is not to say the novel does not suffer from its problems. You may find yourself frustrated that you are stuck with the sometimes-petulant voice of Janice when you would much rather be reading a book by Duncan. The novel has a tendency to hint at grand events and revelations that never occur; it often seems comfortable denying us the satisfaction of the pulp, but then seems lost as to what to provide as an alternative. The protagonists sometimes react nonsensically to the events portrayed in the novel, and often forget the import of recent events in the face of minor personal troubles. But even at its most maddening, "Shriek" is an engaging literary experience. "Shriek: an Afterword" is a smart, subtle, powerful novel worthy of a place on any bookshelf.
(If you enjoy "Shriek," you may also enjoy: "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski, "Pale Fire" by Vladimir Nabokov; and "Aegypt" by John Crowley.)