Interzone Review

Secret Life
Jeff VanderMeer

Golden Gryphon, 306pp, $24.95

Afterimages, burnt into your mind, phrases and imagery curled on the floor. This is the heritage of Secret Life, a collection of short fiction by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer burns brightly even when his subject matter is dark as night. This collection offers an astonishing variety of subject matter and styles. But most importantly, it offers intensity. These are glimpses of the sun that flicker long after the vision afforded by reading them.

Readers familiar with VanderMeer's oeuvre will enjoy his visits to familiar fictional locales. He returns to Ambergris, the setting for City of Saints and Madmen, in five of the stories collected here. Readers can't help but be struck by how confidently, how seamlessly he segues from a world that seems familiar into a world of fantasy. He does so in a variety of voices, from the matter-of-fact narrative voice of "Learning to Leave the Flesh" to the surreal tones of "Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose" to the meta-fiction of "Exhibit H."

In "Detectives and Cadavers" and "Balzac's War," VanderMeer extends the terrain of the science fictional setting for Veniss Underground. "Balzac's War" is a complex but compact novella of a war between humanity and its literally faceless, soulless creations. On the other hand, "The Sea, Mendeho and Moonlight" is a poignant tale of loss and love, a myth from the future VanderMeer has created.

The majority of the stories here are not connected to VanderMeer's signature works. In them the reader will find a variety that is shocking and bracing. The title story, written in shimmering glimpses, tells the story of a building that has a life of its own. VanderMeer slides easily from a surreal vision of corporate life that has become so ingrown it's mutated into the disquieting thoughts of those who work there. The world we think we know becomes an example of why we can never know, never trust this world or any other. "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid," which edges into Ambergris territory, is nonetheless set in a very real Florida. This is a perfect example of VanderMeer's best work. It's full of a rigorous whimsy as it gorgeously renders in prose the entirely fictional habits of an entirely fictional species, culminating in an image of loveliness and power. It's a particularly striking example of science fiction, remarkable and imaginative.

VanderMeer's prose — no matter what style he's working in — is intensely literary. But then, these stories don't feel as if they are literary fiction in the midst of the reading experience. VanderMeer's fiction leads a mayfly life: each story bursts into life then flickers back into nothingness, leaving only itself. Leaving only the reader, the book in hand. You can close the book. But the stories remain alive, the words follow one another and lead back to one another. For a few moments you are there. You are there forever.

— Rick Kleffel, Interzone 195, November/December 2004


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