I cannot think of a suitable place to begin my review of Jeff Vandermeer’s 2004 City of Saints and Madmen, my notes shooting off in wild directions. I guess the title sums up the book perfectly; it is a smorgasbord of odd, paranormal, tragic, sinister, delicate, macabre, slithering, comedic, dreamlike, twisted ideas, with the eerily weird, eerily strange forever hovering in and around. But as abstract as it may be, Vandermeer always keeps one toe in our reality, making the collection an art piece that can be enjoyed at several levels.
City of Saints and Madmen is an extremely varied conglomerate of writing. From short story to transcribed interview, historical abstract to scientific monograph, letter to appendix, bibliography to memoire, all the pieces directly and indirectly describe the fictional city of Ambergris and its variety of inhabitants, human to mushroom. The streets and buildings, homes and back alleys a muddy labyrinth of the industrial era, the mood of moist fungus overhangs all. “The Story of Mr. X” regards a writer held against his will in the basement of a building. “The Cage” tells of an antique collector and a strange piece he feels compelled to buy one day from a family experiencing a plague (of sorts). “King Squid: Being a Brief Monograph Explaining Both the Phenomena of the Giant Freshwater Squid of Related Squid Folklore (Including the Festival of the Freshwater Squid)” is a monograph by Frederick Madnock on the rumors and scientific merits of the creature—entirely fictional, of course. And there is much more, including an encrypted story within a story and the laugh-out-loud bibliography to Madnock’s paper. Each piece with its own typeface and layout, the book was obviously prepared with care and an eye to the aesthetics beyond semiotics. The entire book tied together by place, name, and idea, it was also prepared with multiple purposes in mind.
Thus there is an interesting quote on LibraryThing by member tikitu about City of Saints and Madmen which bears further discussion. It reads: “I can't help comparing [City of Saints and Madmen’s] style to China Miéville's Bas Lag novels, unfavourably. It's an unfair comparison, since Miéville is holding himself to standards of realism that VanderMeer seems to have rejected.”
I would argue exactly the opposite. As Mieville has stated in numerous interviews, his main goal in writing is to tell a ripping-good tale using ideas of the fantastic. Certain elements in his stories may chime thematically, but overall his intention is to mix monsters, ghouls, the weird, and all manner of the imagination—ideas juxtaposing reality (at least mine)—into an entertaining story. Vandermeer, however, is quite obviously in the art-house crowd; reality may be toyed with, but it’s not to be escaped from. Whether the reader enjoys his works at face value (as they easily can be) or chooses to dig deeper to find those hidden thought-inducers is, of course, personal preference. Either way, I would argue that Vandermeer’s ties to reality, while certainly more abstract, nevertheless cling tighter to the world we know than the fantasy storytelling of Perdido Street Station and the other Bas Lag novels. Like Salvador Dali or Remedio Varos, Vandermeer stirs something deeper in the soul beyond the strangeness of the visage.
As intriguing, odd, and outright phantasmagorical as the pieces may be, none are just stories for story’s sake. By comparison, Edvard Munch’s four versions of Scream are much the same on the surface. In a deeper subtext—perhaps which only Munch knows—meaning can be attributed to the surreal appearance, however. The works included in City of Saints and Madmen are precisely the same. Love and its perception, art and the creative muse, the meaning of history, creative vs. objective reality, ego in the arts, and meta-textual points haunt the imagery and stories of the collection. If delighting in the fantastic is one half of its enjoyment, then stepping through the doors of thought opened to the reader is the other. Vandermeer may have more of the madman in him, but each section has intent.
In the end, City of Saints and Madmen will not be for every fan of fantasy. A concept work, the aim is fantasy as art rather than storytelling in its purest. Readers looking for linear stories with warm, fuzzy characters should turn off now. If, however, you like flights of fancy, the surreal, a variety of styles used effectively, not a word out of place, and an examination under the stones of imagination usually left unturned, then the book may be for you. (Viriconium and Gormenghast such obvious influences, fans of M. John Harrison and Mervyn Peake's books will find interesting parallels but original ideas in Vandermeer’s foray into fragmented reality.) Ideas and creativity present in spades, it’s possible to enjoy the book at two levels: the surface play of unique characters and settings (art for art’s sake) and the subtext, thoughts and questions regarding creativity, existence, and perception (spawned by the scenes and imagery presented) can be pondered. Undoubtedly those who approach the collection as an art piece will enjoy it the most.