Locus Magazine Review

Secret Life, Jeff VanderMeer (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-27-4, $24.95, 305pp, hc) June 2004. Cover by Scott Eagle.

Secret Life collects the best short fiction by Jeff VanderMeer to date, and demonstrates amply this young author's rapidly growing centrality in the field of dark fantasy. As much as [Gene] Wolfe, VanderMeer makes every poetic word and finely shaded nuance count; and more than Wolfe, he impels his stories to experimental stretches of affect and meaning that are electrifying, eye-opening, and often (though not always) authentically revolutionary. Secret Life is the portfolio of a gifted and determined artistic innovator, whose earlier City of Saints and Madmen has already shattered boundaries and toppled taboos; City may well have been only the beginning of that process.

To read Secret Life is to understand radical new possibilities of fantastic narrative. Bizarre conjunctions of the mundane and the otherworldly; stories told backwards, in bits and pieces, entirely in the form of digressive book excerpts, or as weird correspondences of author and text; dazzling shufflings of viewpoint; curious resonances across dissimilar stories (why do detectives so often confront outré corpses?); conventionally structured tales that effloresce into shapes defying category. But many of VanderMeer's effects are indescribable, and can only be experienced. What, then, of the meat, the literal content, of this extraordinary cornucopia of tales and sleights of telling?

Three story cycles contribute much of Secret Life. There is the Ambergris sequence familiar from City of Saints and Madmen, but because virtually all of the major episodes appeared in that book, the five pieces here are tangential or premonitory. "Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose" looks forward to a baleful period in the history of Ambergris, occurring long after City, when the subterranean gray caps have taken the metropolis back under their brutal and inscrutable control, and human visitors are distinctly unwelcome; "The Machine" is a genuinely horrifying look at the sinister realm the gray caps consider home; "Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist" hints at their murderous methodologies; "Learning to Leave the Flesh" is a more prosaic but still disturbing insight into the fevered mentality of the forlorn citizens of Ambergris; and "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid" is essentially a droll allegory of Ambergris set in VanderMeer's native Florida. These are strong stories on the whole, but fragmentary. Much fuller is the second major story cycle, located in the far-future dying Earth setting of Veniss Underground: a set of legends illuminating a depleted desert world of abandoned cities, genetically engineered killer meerkats, and dire transformative technologies. "Balzac's War" and "A Heart for Lucretia" are especially strong, tales of hopeless love and sacrifice, of quests twisted malignantly out of true; but "The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight" and "Detectives and Cadavers" also impress with their intense grotesquerie, and "The City" is a nightmare coda to the series, a disorienting evocation of broken perception and disintegrating memory. And VanderMeer is at his most subversively lyrical in the third cycle, which might be called the "hummingbird" triptych: "The Emperor's Reply," "The Compass of His Bones," and "Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac." Here, the fate of the last Incas and of their Spanish conquerors is examined from a rich variety of perspectives, a mingling of myth and history that is gravely beautiful, a sustained elegy to a culture smashed almost beyond retrieval.

Many important entries in Secret Life stand on their own, however. The title story is a mesmerizing map of the fall of civilization, plotted against the decline of a single surreal office building; "Flight Is for Those Who Have Not Yet Crossed Over" is an elegant, unexpected consideration of political liberation; "The Bone Carver's Tale" anatomizes arrogance with a splendidly judged balance of characterological complexity and heartrending simplicity; "The General Who Is Dead" is a searing attack on the perverse logic of war; "Greensleeves" is magnificent Bradburyesque small-town fantasy. And this is without mentioning "Black Duke Blues," "The Mansions of the Moon," "Mahout." Secret Lif is astonishingly full for its length. Its appearance may well be a landmark.

— Nick Gevers, Locus, June 2004


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