Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review of "Veniss Underground" by Jeff Vandermeer

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.


  1. My relations to Jeff VanderMeer's works have always been ambivalent. I was awed by City of Saints and Madmen, but then quite unimpressed by Veniss Underground (by the way, I kept asking myself, is it intended to be pronounced like "Venice," as I did, or like "Venus"?). There were aspects I liked (like the meerkats), but it was not enough to hold up well at novel length. As a novella it might have worked better for me. Ever since City of Saints and Madmen I have picked up VanderMeer's books, but was always disappointed. Finch was quite all right, but I couldn't even finish Shriek, back then. That was the year our first child was born, and sleep deprivation will reduce your enjoyment of literature, so I've been meaning to pick Shriek up once more and re-read it, but so far I couldn't bring myself to do it.
    What did you think of the highly praised Southern Reach? I thought Annihilation was okay (although I was not too impressed by it--there were too many derivative aspects for me: Stalker and the Strukazki brothers, Monsters, etc.; too little originality), but abandoned Authority after a hundred pages and didn't bother opening up Acceptance after that. I found the shallow, clichéd characterization annoying, the anonymity of the characters forced and stilted. If he had compressed the three books into one -- preferably slim -- volume it might have worked better for me. (It's the same with Jeffrey Ford's Well-Built City trilogy -- Ford is one of my favorite authors, The Shadow Year among my all-time favorite novels, his short fiction better than anybody else's, yet he could have compressed the trilogy into one slim volume as well and it would have benefited from it.)

    I feel the same way about Matt Ruff, whose only work I've enjoyed was Sewer, Gas and Electric. Everything after that -- and his debut as well -- fell quite short for me. Nevertheless, I will read Lovecraft County.

    Another aside to one of your other reviews: I completely agree with your judgment on Conan. Like Lovecraft, after a certain age I couldn't bring myself to read Howard's work anymore. I own the Fantasy Masterworks omnibuses but didn't even finish the first volume back then. Something of Conan appeals to me, he is after all a mythical archetype, but Howard's prose doesn't hold up. And there are of course the other things you mentioned in your review. Some of them can perhaps be shrugged off as signs of their time, but they are still bothersome to read today. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I first came upon Conan in the comics. He works much better for me in that format (as illustrated by John Buscema). And Kurt Busiek's adaptations of Howard's original stories are actually quite good.
    And I'm glad you left the comments in -- they're hilarious! Someday, someone should compile a book of web rants: Fanboys of the Online Wastes, A Trolligy.


    1. Fanboys of the Online Wastes: A Trolligy - I'm laughing out loud!! I never did link to the Conan forum where those commenters came from, but trust me, it was also hilarious. There was a lot of 'Let's go get 'im, boys!' and general offerings of comfort to one another - don't worry about that stupid reviewer, Howard was still the greatest writer we know, etc. They even had a moment of paranoia: "Quick, delete the link to that review!! Maybe that guy is profiting from our traffic!!" All I could think of was a saloon full of drunken bandits responding to the notion the sheriff just called them a bunch of nobodies...

      I have not read everything by Jeff VanderMeer, but everything I have read is better than the majority of genre writers out there. He has an awareness of the craft of writing (an innate writerly something), a purposeful touch with language, and a sense of meaning beyond mere storytelling to everything he writes that really appeals to me. Check out his non-fiction book on writing called Wonderbook. He really knows his stuff, and at one point dissects sections of Finch to show that stuff. That being said, I understand why some readers may be put off by his work. It can be abstract and not readily accessible. Perhaps the same reason why you like Ford's The Shadow Years, a very straight-forward novel, and like less his Well-Built City trilogy, which is far more abstract?

      I've found the best way to appreciate VanderMeer's writing is to approach it as if it were art as much as story. Certainly plot is a key part of his work, but aesthetics that reference the less concrete aspects of perception is just as important, which is why surrealism is so often present. Shriek is art house literature. It may also help to view Veniss Underground not as a novel, rather a collection, or a series of paintings in a gallery that when placed beside one another in a row offer food for thought as to their relationship and content. I have not read the three Area: X books, but am greatly looking forward to the same thing: put three "paintings" up before the eye to let the reader ascertain their significance.

      All this being said, I find it interesting that you enjoy Wolfe so much, and VanderMeer not as much. For sure they have different styles, but both depend heavily on what is hinted at and suggested as much as what is actually presented...