Jeff VanderMeer,
City of Saints & Madmen
(Prime, 2002)

I love elusive books. You know the kind I'm talking about -- the books you hear about but can't seem to find in any normal place, until one day you stumble upon them in the back of a library or sequestered in a friend's collection, or hidden in plain sight on the end of a bookstore aisle.

City of Saints & Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer is just such a book. It is a collection of short stories and novellas, all either set in or revolving around the city of Ambergris (a place that bears a certain resemblance both to Gormenghast and to Viriconium, but has oddities all its own).

The untitled short story on the book's cover provides a glimpse into the feeling one gets from reading the rest. A traveler, just coming to Ambergris, falls into the River Moth, the murky, polluted river that surrounds the city. He believes that he is going to drown but, through the water, he sees a giant eye. It is the eye of a King Squid, the freshwater squid that inhabit the river. And then he resurfaces, gasping for air and trying to recover from his brush with death. That's what it feels like to read City of Saints & Madmen. It's a brush with the unknown, but with a growing, often menacing, sense of self-consciousness.

And it's this very self-consciousness that makes the book so wonderfully strange. The first few stories -- such as "Dradin, In Love" and "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris" -- are fairly normal, if it's possible for anything in Ambergris to be normal. However, by the time the reader reaches "The Transformation of Martin Lake," the very characters seem to be growing uneasy, as if, in their spare moments, the characters might wonder about whether or not they truly exist. The place names in the book highlight this, too. The Borges Bookstore features prominently in several stories, as does a bar known as the Drunken Boat. Arch literary references, anyone?

But "The Strange Case of X" and its "AppendiX" form a sort of climax to the work, as well as being wonderful pieces of self-conscious Borgesian fantasy. A writer, known only as X, is being held in the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute. He is being interviewed by a psychiatrist and, slowly, the nature of his malady becomes clear -- he is the writer who invented Ambergris. However, his creation is invading his life in strange ways until it consumes him entirely.

As in "Dradin, In Love," the ending holds a remarkably inventive, though fairly plausible, twist. The "AppendiX" also holds some wonderful stories, all building on "The Strange Case of X." These include a pamphlet on the King Squid, the text of a short story by Sirin (an Ambergrisian writer of some renown), an encrypted short story written by X while in the Institute and the highly amusing "Ambergris Glossary."

City of Saints & Madmen is a wonderful, beautiful, terrifying book, combining Borges and Ellison with Gaiman and Peake. If I were to recommend it as highly as I would like to, I would be ostracized from this site for unfounded hyperbole. Elusive though the book may be, it's certainly worth the search. And if you can't find it in your local area, you can always check the Borges Bookstore.

by Theo deRoth
22 July 2006

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