Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review of Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer’s 2001collection City of Saints and Madmen was a tour de force.  Putting Ambergris on the map, it presented vignettes from multiple perspectives of a fantastical city: scattered amidst historical monologues and art house pieces, interviews with crazed writers and fictional glossaries are stories of the strange and Weird.  Shifting gears, VanderMeer followed up the collection with Shriek in 2006.  Approaching the fungal metropolis from a personal point of view, the character studies of a socialite and her historian brother anchor what is by comparison a more subdued but no less creative text.  But even after the second book, questions remained—what about the Gray Caps, the underground, what ever became of Duncan Shriek, what of Ambergris’ true history, among others.  Thus for the third Ambergris book, VanderMeer did what any writer would do who wants to get under the skin of their own creation: he wrote a detective novel in an attempt to uncover its mysteries.  Putting an exclamation point on the Ambergris series, Finch is that novel.

Though the perspectives vary significantly throughout City of Saints and Madmen, there is a classical feel to the collection, a sense that the stories are written in modes more akin to yesteryear than modern times.  Shriek saw the clock roll ahead; Ambergris was still not the modern metropolis one thinks of New York currently as, for example, but instead a previous iteration, perhaps mid 20th century.  The clock spinning further ahead in Finch, the setting is contemporized.  While far from obvious, the fungal city nevertheless has a turn of the 21st century feel to it.  The surface details as wonderfully Weird as VanderMeer’s imagination has proven itself to be, rather the shift is seen in the function of the elements deployed.  And none moreso than the state of socio-politics.

A few years prior to the opening of Finch, the Rising occurred.  Choosing a moment when the feud between the two major houses of Ambergris was particularly flagrant, the Gray Caps rose from the underground and took over the city.  Humans made their underlings, they set about instituting their way of life, forcing people to live by their rules.  The takeover not as quick or as easy as they would have it, fringe rebellions remain.  The fabled Lady in Blue, purported to be somewhere just outside the city limits, plots humanity’s return.  The Gray Caps devoting all available resources to the construction of two massive towers on Ambergris’ harbor, there are many who believe them to be a massive weapon that will wipe out the rebellion once and for all. 

Doing his job and keeping his nose clean lest he end up assigned to the labor camps erecting the towers, John Finch lives as much on the margins of Ambergris life as is possible for a detective.  But on the first page, he’s dragged into the milieu; Finch opens with the discovery of two murdered bodies—or at least one and a half: one man and half a Gray Cap.   Both laying sprawled on the floor as if dropped from the ceiling, Finch has no clue who the victims are, nor how they arrived as they did.  Harassed by his Gray Cap boss into solving the case as quickly as possible, the only lead Finch has to go on is a scrap of paper found in the dead man’s hand with some Latin mumblings and a strange symbol.  The clues enough, however, it’s not long before he’s treading Ambergris’ crime underground—getting into trouble but discovering more and more along the way.  The case slowly evolving into a size hairier than he’d like, the threats from the Gray Caps, mafia, and rebellion squeeze him tighter by the day.  Solving the murders not enough trouble, decisions from his past come back to haunt.  An early grave seems the only escape.

But there is more to Finch than just fungalized fantasy and science fiction.  Presenting the social evolutions of City and Saints and Madmen and Shriek from yet another perspective, the political pieces on the chess board in Finch begin the story in new, even opposed positions.  The Gray Caps, secondary characters in the previous books, rule Ambergris, and humanity, at turns warring with itself and with the Gray Caps, is on the outside of power looking in.  Finch’s girlfriend, a member of a minority group who lived in the area before Ambergris’ foreign founders came and destroyed their culture, is even further on the outside.  All of these groups, and the events around Detective Finch, build toward a major social revolution; the turns of history in the previous novels continue to move the Ambergris grindstone. 

Thus, where Shriek offered a point of comparison to City of Saints and Madmen, Finch offers a third for full triangulation of VanderMeer’s social and political agenda.  In dialogue with social cycles, history, cultural transformations—amongst other ideas, it continues to solidify the city’s thematic shape in absorbing fashion.

Shriek a semi-Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hide investigation of the two sides of its characters’ personalities, Finch likewise digs into the head of its main character.  An equivocal dichotomy also emerging, Finch must confront the demons of his father, an informant in the civil wars that occurred before the Gray Cap rising, in turn forcing Finch to change his identity to better fit into society and escape the infamy of his old man.  The change not completely disguisable, his past comes back again as he traverses Ambergris seeking clues to the murders.  Caught between two lives, liminality of personality is once again on display, a person as beholden to their past as present.

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is certainly one of the top fantasy concepts of the 20th century.  Its reality perpetually shifting underfoot, Harrison deconstructs the idea of worldbulding in the process of three novels, the inherent tales no less fascinating.  Vandermeer accomplishes something very similar in Ambergis in terms of transition.  However, he works in the opposite direction.  City of Saints and Madmen possesses much the same Weird feel as In Viriconium; everything is recognizable but off-center in some precisely indefinable fashion.  Shriek, while far from entirely broodingly surreal like A Storm of Wings, nevertheless presents a different perspective of Ambergris, one whose mimetic elements are blended with excursions into unreality.  Finch thus closes the Ambergris series (or at least what we’ve been presented thus far) on a fully genre note—just as Harrison opened Viriconium with in The Pastel City.  John Finch is the classic noir private eye with issues from his past driving him to drink, a less than dependable love life, and a despisal of existence.  Likewise, the Gray Caps, their weaponry, the giant drug dispensing mushrooms, the towers, the portals—all hold tight to a genre agenda.  An interesting reverse parallel to Viriconium, VanderMeer’s series proves itself every inch as effective at putting to the test the idea of worldbuilding and style in fantasy.

In the end, Finch is a shroomified genre homage to detective noir that reshuffles the themes, ideas, and imagery of Ambergris in stimulating fashion.  But more than just a fungalized Raymond Chandler replication, VanderMeer again shows himself a master craftsman.  Working within yet expanding the ideas of the previous Ambergris books, he switches things up stylistically, offering a dense, minimized narrative that grabs and won’t let go.  Exposing the city like never before, he accomplishes the detective’s mission: to uncover mysteries, which in the novel’s case are intrinsic to the plot and likewise the setting, particularly questions which have lingered in the background of the books to date.  With Finch, the position of Ambergris as one of the top fantasy series in the 21st century is solidified.  (While the novel has a conclusory feel to it, there is room for further books, and will thus be intriguing to see whether any appear.  I personally think VanderMeer has said all he wants to say in the setting, but we shall see.)

(As a side note, the Stephen Donaldson quote on the cover of my copy of Finch is ridiculous.  Not the content of the quote, rather its existence.  Donaldson’s work bears little to nothing in common with VanderMeer’s, leading one to wonder what it’s doing there.  Likewise, the same could be said of the Richard Morgan quote on the back.  Morgan a classic might-makes-right, blood and violence author, VanderMeer’s novel trumps any of his offerings for sophistication and style.  Readers of one will likely be disappointed by the other, and vice versa.  It all begs the question: why couldn’t Corvus find a true authority to comment?)


  1. Great review, Jesse! I very much enjoyed Finch when it came out, and thought it was a fitting capstone to the Ambergis series. Part of me hopes VanderMeer will return to Ambergis, but as you state, I think he's said everything that needs to be said, and other volumes may detract rather than add to the series.

  2. Thanks for this very kind review. I've got an idea for a graphic novel with several POVs set 20 years after the events in Finch. But no novels planned. Jeff V

    1. Thanks for stopping by my wayward corner of the net. Graphic novel is intriguing. Thus far my images of Ambergris are all rooted in cover art and what my imagination conjures reading the stories. A graphic novel would concretize that experience...