Locus Magazine Review

Secret Life, Jeff VanderMeer (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-27-4, $24.95, 306pp, hc) June 2004. Cover by Scott Eagle.

Like Stephen King's "Dark Tower" books, Jeff VanderMeer's Secret Life ties the faculties of reason and imagination into great big Gordian knots a reviewer can't just hack through with a few well-chosen words, yet it's a pleasure to read — better than a day at the movies with a big tub of popcorn and your pockets stuffed with Snickers. Not counting a self-published chapbook, this is his first true collection. (The pieces in City of Saints and Madmen share enough elements to qualify as a story suite, mosaic novel, or what-have-you.) And it's impressive, from the Bosch-meets-Buddha cover art to the very last page.

Aside from a few originals (or radical revisions of earlier works), the initial publication dates range from 1989 to 2002, but these well-chosen stories aren't presented chronologically and there's none of that feel of "Complete Works, Volume One": tyro author climbing the learning curve. While VanderMeer's end-notes readily admit to occasional doubts or difficulties in the writing process, and not everything here deserves an emphatic A+, he's never less than good, and shows brilliance very early on. (One of my favorites, "Greensleeves," is a 1992 story expanding on a piece from 1989, when JV was scarcely into his twenties.)

The title novelette, previously available only to 100 or so of the author's personal friends back in December 2002, is a gem. Here the eons of history and myths glimpsed, personalized, annotated, and otherwise toyed with in the "Ambergris" books don't have the run of a city, let alone a world — they're packed into a five-story office building "surrounded by a dull concrete parking lot." Caste systems develop; the inhabitants of certain floors become less (or more) than human; seemingly inconsequential acts by a few ordinary people ultimately produce astonishing results; one silly, apparently random episode comes back to haunt us . . . and a series of tiny "Interludes" threads through it all, hinting at greater and more troubling metaphysical dimensions.

Pseudo newspaper article "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid" (attributed to one Harry Flack) takes the inherent weirdness of art festivals and municipal events in a small Florida tourist town and skews it toward the more exotic weirdness of squid-obsessed Ambergris, but this is still very much the USA. Two stories later, we're in Peru. Initially conceived as part of a novel (that may yet come to pass), "Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac" brings together a nameless modern reporter and a "Conquistador" who may have known Pizarro; it works beautifully on its own, right down to the chilling conclusion.

As the end-note reveals, "Learning to Leave the Flesh" draws from factual material about the physiology of dwarves, the author's unsettling experiences while working at an otherwise generic Book Warehouse, and a surreal dream that came to him out of nowhere, resulting in a proto-Ambergris story later worked into metafiction "The Strange Case of X." An even more mundane public library, and its resigned 43-year-old librarian, take on new lives after a professional jester enters in search of his Magic Frog (a giant from the Amazonian rain forests) in "Greensleeves" — a beautifully crafted modern fairy tale where absurdity joins with revelation, and a transcendent experience leaves behind chaos, a hint of cinnamon, frog spit, and subtle musics.

Short-short "The Machine," described as "a stand-alone selection from my novel-in-progress Shriek: An Afterword" (another Ambergris book), is a gripping nightmare told entirely in the second person. That's a difficult form where the reader is as likely to become annoyed as caught up by the narrative. It didn't work for me in "Mahout," but this one gets it exactly right. Even riskier is "Experiment #25 from the Book of Winter: The Croc and You," alternating second person and metafiction: "you" within the story, while "the writer" is the guy tearing his hair out trying to finish it, thinking all the while of Kafka, Nabokov, and (by inference) Harlan Ellison. Not only does VanderMeer pull off this Experiment — he uses it to close the book. Talk about chutzpah! Anyone familiar with the maddening art of making fiction can only look on in jealous wonder, as he gets it right again.

— Faren Miller, Locus, June 2004


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