There are a few red lights that go off when reading an author’s first major published work. A main character as an artist or Greek myth used for plot structure are signs that the next bus to Literary Pretense may be boarding, a mind fresh from English 101 behind the wheel. Avoiding the trappings of these fragile motifs, Jeff Vandermeer’s debut novella—err, novel—Veniss Underground shows every sign of a writer who received the praise of his professors and is confident in his ability to put a fresh perspective on such well-worn tropes. Thus, Nicholas may be a Living Artist (more later) and the framework of Veniss Underground based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the setting and imagery remain wholly original. Scenery twisted like cyberpunk on acid, its details macabre to the bone—a surreal dream, Vandermeer seems poised to make a place for himself in fantasy of the 21st century.
Veniss Underground is a window of time in the lives of three characters: the twins Nicholas and Nicola, and Nicola’s ex-boyfriend, Shadrach. A far-future, unnamed city—called Veniss by Nicholas—is the setting, and technology, including genetic and biological engineering, have permeated society to the point life is as pliable as putty. Divided into three sections, the book begins with Nicholas and his despair that life in their post-revolution city will get better. The despondency so acute, Nicholas gives up his career as a virtual artist and goes to work for the underworld persona Quin as a living artist—a bioneer, someone who genetically engineers creatures, animals, nightmares, dreams, and all manner of biological material between. Her brother fading from society, Nicola goes looking for him, only to be swallowed by the same business. Shadrach is the only one remaining and must do his best to find the two and solve the mystery of what Quin is doing in the underworld. Life in the multiple levels below Veniss’s streets having had millennia to fester into the deepest, darkest nightmare the outcasts of humanity can make of it, Shadrach’s mission requires every ounce of fortitude he possesses to bring the mystery of the twin’s disappearance into the neon of day.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the bedrock of Veniss Underground, there is also a strong undercurrent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness flowing beneath the story as Shadrach plunges ever deeper into the underworld. The “Kurtz” he finds truly a twisted remnant of humanity, descending Vandermeer’s river is like entering a nightmare of the sub-conscious. The prose is fluid and sharp along the journey, and the descriptions drip with some of the most phantasmagorical imagery fantasy has produced this century. The smells of animals and garbage fill the streets, and visuals of oozing liquids and throbbing organs fill the void. Like William Gibson, Vandermeer’s sparse tone cuts the scene open like a razor, letting the reader’s imagination wander excitedly through the scenes—the dystopia, the underworld, the nightmares, and most certainly the weird. The animals Quin and his crew create (the Living Art) lend a circus touch the story, the reader having to fully suspend their belief when talking meerkats serve crab for dinner. Be warned, Veniss Underground’s feet are not set in our reality.
The faults of the novel are a matter of taste. More a fix-up of two short stories bookended by a throw-away intro and epilogue, never does the narrative expand into novel scope. Nicholas’ story told in the third person, Nicola’s in the second person, and Shadrach’s once again in the third person, one wonders what Vandermeer was attempting to accomplish beyond experimenting with style. Nothing is gained from Nicola’s part by having her dictate to the reader what you are doing. That being said, nothing is lost, either. Her jaunts through the Snow Crash-esque enclaves of Veniss are just as visually affecting as the third person description of Shadrach’s trip to the underground cathedral. Again a matter of taste, certainly some readers will enjoy the change of pace and narrative distance separating the character sections. Vivid imagery the heart of the novel, most will be able to forgive the rather shallow characterization that comes with.
In the end, Jeff Vandermeer’s debut, whether novel, novella, or fix-up, is an eye-catching piece of art written in savory prose that promises of great things to come. With an almost ghoulish delight, his far-future, genetically displaced underworld of Veniss comes to life in terms Dante, Homer, even Dali never imagined (Vandermeer describes it as: “when beauty and horror could be synonymous”). The character Quin highly reminiscent of Mr. Motley from Perdido Street Station (the idea of bio-alteration suffusing the novel in general), fans of Mieville will want to check out Veniss Underground. Likewise, those willing to open their minds to an acid trip interpretation of a William Gibson visit to Hades may also want to have a go. Not the first scratches of a recent English major graduate, Vandermeer’s first published work indicates a craftsman at work, and one readers on the modern fantasy scene will want to check out.