City of Saints and Madmen was a phantasmagorical mélange of (sur)reality. The past and present of Ambergris like shards of stained glass lying on wet pavement, the themes of art, history, culture, and humanity colored what was otherwise a fungally Weird vision of urbanity. Underlying realities forever hinted at but never revealed, the collection proved to be a course of appetizers that whet hunger but do not sate it. In 2006 VanderMeer unveiled the main course: Shriek: An Afterword, which is, thankfully, infinitely better than my food metaphors. Presenting the character studies of two siblings living in Ambergris in tumultuous times, the novel expands the ideas of City of Saints and Madmen in subtle, layered fashion, helping to define the Ambergris books as one of the most important works of 21 st century fantasy.
Shriek begins as an afterword to a re-printing of The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shiek. Written by the author’s sister Janice, it opens on a biographical note recounting the details of her brother’s youth. But very quickly it becomes apparent the afterword is not standard historical material. Duncan’s own words appearing in the text (in such parentheses), the narrative becomes reminiscences, revelations, and running commentary from both Janice and Duncan. Janice’s personal issues rising slowly to the top, the narrative becomes autobiographical as well. Scenes from her involvement in the art scene intertwined with Duncan’s own good and bad luck as professor and writer are featured. Events in Ambergris at large taking shape in the background, the rivalry of the city’s two main publishing houses escalates into a civil war, and finally all-out war when the neighboring Kalif invades. Known from the outset that Duncan eventually disappears into the underground and that Janice’s self-destruction moves continually downhill, the mystery of Janice’s ultimate fate, as well as how Duncan came to annotate Janice’s narrative, are mysteries needing resolution.
Highly personal stories, Shriek is an act of catharsis for Janice, and an autobiography (of parenthesized sorts) for Duncan. Clearing his name of the public perception that dogged his radical views into Ambergris’ history and love affair with his student, Mary Sabon, Duncan, the true historian, revels in setting the facts—at least he sees them—straight. Janice’s presentation of herself silent regarding personal issues at the outset, as she becomes more comfortable writing emotions overcomes poise, and she reveals herself to be a bitter, self-aggrandizing, jealous women. Given to the vices of drugs and the flesh, she also becomes more open about the aspects of her brother’s life that deeply trouble her conscience. Duncan’s commentary often juxtaposing her outpourings, what Janice thinks is indifference may have in fact been illness or otherwise, revealing Duncan to be broader in character than Janice would seem to realize. That being said, Duncan’s perspective likewise needs to be taken with a grain of salt. ‘Winners write history’ is seemingly one of VanderMeer’s messages between the lines, nothing 100% certain.
Abigail Nussbaum on Strange Horizons criticizes Shriek for its lack of dynamic world building, stating: “the Ambergris that emerges from the novel is a less layered, less compelling invented universe for having been filtered through Duncan and Janice's perceptions, and I believe that fellow City fans will react to the novel with profound disappointment”. She’s right; if the reader approaches Shriek as a simple exercise in world building, they will walk away unsatisfied. Shriek a personal account that moves setting to the background and character to the foreground, it is in dialogue with the relationship between humanity and existence, history, and culture. It is not merely a rehashing, or re-presentation of the details of Ambergris from another perspective. Inverting the prominent narrative elements, where said subject material edged in from the margins in City of Saints and Madmen, it takes center stage in Shriek.
With art, history, culture, and personal themes presented in such enigmatic yet open fashion, Shriek is possible to be viewed from a complex variety of perspectives, making the novel one the reader can invest themselves in beyond story. One interesting perspective is symbolized by the Silence-to-Shift transition, and the location of Shriek within. Like any art movement, a new form appears, fresh and filled with possibilities, is expanded upon to the nth degree until imitation becomes recursive, and ultimately collapses under its own weight as another form takes over. VanderMeer not satisfied with a single parallel, however, the acceptance of historical fact, the beliefs which become associated, and the paradigm shifts which evolve through time are likewise a strong layer of sub-text to the transition. Duncan’s historical accounts of Ambergris going through a cycle of bans and fevered re-printings, the church he is in contact with, as well as the new historical records he himself uncovers, are interestingly similar to real-world cycles of acceptance and rejection of knowledge in the public sphere. Perception of fact varying with the times, VanderMeer captures the idea wonderfully. Another motif—and the last one I will discuss in this review, though I’m sure there are more—are the dichotomous perceptions of reality. Subjective vs. subjective, subjective vs. objective, historical vs. actual, present vs. past, VanderMeer toys with a wide variety. The contexts both character and plot related, the narrative is a continual intersection of ideas that reward thought.
In the end, Shriek is an equally superb follow up to City of Saints and Madmen. Any reader who brings expectations that it will be another exercise in Ambergris world building is bound to be unsatisfied, however. VanderMeer shifting mode of presentation to one more individual, the reader experiences the concepts of art, history, perception, and haunting by the unknown in very personal, Weird fashion through the eyes of a socialite and historian, the siblings Janice and Duncan Shriek. No less art house than City but more subdued (mimetic, as it almost were), elements of the fantastic do exist. Duncan’s journal entries and Janice’s recollections are occasionally pierced by intensely visual scenes that reward an appreciation of subtlety, that is, rather than the ostensible visuals of City. VanderMeer a prose artist, each word is chosen with care and precision. He constructs a rich, textured narrative that induces a great deal of thought between the lines. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, M. John Harrison, and Mervyn Peake before him, VanderMeer paints a surreal picture inhabited by real human qualities, making Shriek, and Ambergris, 21st century literary fantasy at its best.