Jeff VanderMeer, Secret Life. Urbana, Illinois: Golden Gryphon, 2004.305 pages, cloth, $24.95. ISBN 1-930846-27-4.
The brilliant little fictions that inhabit the covers of Jeff VanderMeer's collection Secret Life press desperately at their own borders, eager to creep into other narrative spaces like the fleshy and insidious flowering vine around which the book's title story is constructed. These tales, which span a multitude of styles and genres (as well as the entirety of VanderMeer's career), are quick to drop precipitously into sharp footnotes, to rewrite personal and imagined histories, and to daub detail into the corners of the author's previous (and, presumably, future) works. But despite all these stylistic and thematic leaps and bounds, VanderMeer has managed to create a coherent document that maintains throughout an urgency and clarity remarkable for such a relatively new author.
As a collection, Secret Life further highlights an intense annotative impulse deep at the heart of VanderMeer's work — plainly exhibited here by the author's desire to end each story in the collection with a brief authorial gloss. But these annotations only intimate a sharp desire to keep porous the narrative boundaries in the texts themselves, resulting in a series of beautiful interstitial spaces — from the 13th century to the 110th, from Florida to Cambodia to VanderMeer's own Ambergris — that stubbornly remain both biographical and bibliographical.
Stories such as "Festival of the Freshwater Squid," which manages to balance a vaguely Ambergrisian tale with VanderMeer's very recognizable Florida; "Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac" and "Flight is For Those Who Have Not Yet Crossed Over," which gently layer postcolonial critique with lived experience and imagined narratives; and "Greensleeves" and "Secret Life," which palimpsestically write the fantastical over the text of the mundane, form the true heart of the collection. These stories (and many others, such as "The Compass of His Bones," "The General Who is Dead," and "The Emperor's Reply) demonstrate a wonderful new vision for fantastic fiction, one that revels in the slipperiness of the narrative constraints.
In addition to these (mostly) "stand alone" stories, a relatively small but significant portion of the collection returns to the environs of VanderMeer's novel Veniss Underground ("The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight," "Balzac's War," A Heart for Lucretia" among others) and the Ambergris stories from his World Fantasy Award winning collection Cities of Saints and Madmen (most notably "Exhibit H: Tom Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist" and "Learning to Leave the Flesh"). Those who come to this collection looking to these stories as extensions of VanderMeer's earlier works should be pleasantly surprised.
At first glance, Secret Life suggests China Miéville's cramped and sweating industrial vision but with a far greater sense of isolation and expansiveness of environment that one might find in John Crowley or Gene Wolfe's fiction. VanderMeer's characters are lost in and locked out of the worlds that they can hardly identify — it seems that the stories themselves have far more freedom of movement than do the characters that occupy them. It is in this way that, in addition to Borges, the fantastical experiments of the Oulipians — that seminal French experimental collective whose members include such luminaries as Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Harry Mathews — quietly serves as a useful model for reading VanderMeer's prose. One senses underlying structures and concerns that, while not immediately necessary to the demands of the surface narrative, beg to be unearthed and examined. The tales exhibit an architectural clarity, a fascination with things underneath that move slowly and insistently, often against the wishes of those that must occupy these spaces. The title story speaks of an office building that teems with Kafkaesque grotesqueries and surface banality, yet in the walls a flowering vine grows and destroys and overrides the little narratives that feed and nurture it. As an entirety, Secret Life intimates a hidden force in not only the individual narratives of the collection, but also in VanderMeer's skill as a fiction writer. What we're left with here feels like the sturdy bits of a remarkable mythology being built piece by piece from momentous, if often innocuous, moments.
— Nicholas Laudadio, SFRA Review #271, January/February/March 2005