Thursday, January 12, 2006

Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

There are several ways in which Veniss Underground, Jeff VanderMeer's first full-length novel, fails. The first is in the attempt to convey, as VanderMeer managed to do so powerfully in his earlier and much-lauded collection, City of Saints and Madmen, a palpable sense of place. Only a few pages into the first Ambergris story, "Dradin, In Love", the reader forms a vivid impression of the city's shape and size, of its politics, government, rituals and castes. It is a tale told by a madman, who catches a glimpse of the city at its most tumultuous and irrational, and yet the Ambergris that emerges from "Dradin" has an undeniable logic to it. The city works, and it develops a palpable weight in the reader's mind, becoming its own character.

None of these things happen during the 200 pages we spend wandering around the post-apocalyptic enclave once known as Dayton Central but now, following a collapse and fragmentation of its government, called simply Veniss. The three characters who act as our guides as we journey through the city all feel the importance of knowing their home and try to treat it as a living, breathing organism, but we remain unconvinced. Veniss lacks Ambergris' underlying logic (in fact, what underlies the city is madness and chaos), and the sense that the city would continue to live and breathe--in one form or another--even if our characters were to be destroyed by it. Veniss Underground's plot is essentially a mythic quest through the city's underworld layers, but these lightless worlds never take on the patina of truth--the further we travel into the novel and the city, the more Veniss feels like a metaphor for something else, not a creature in its own right.

The second way in which Veniss Underground fails is as a work of science fiction. On his website, VanderMeer writes that he wrote the story in order to "examine issues of the environment and bio-engineering", but his treatment of these issues is familiar and not particularly original. At the behest of Quin, the master manipulator of flesh and, as soon becomes clear, Veniss' shadow ruler, the city's inhabitants have quickly adopted intelligent, bioengineered creatures--ganeshas and meerkats--whom they use as servants and menials. Frankly, VanderMeer's treatment of this trope is roughly equivalent to what we'd see in an average episode of Battlestar Galactica--humanity creates the Cylons/meerkats and enslaves them without recognizing their intelligence. The Cylons/meerkats learn of humanity's depredations, their crimes against each other and against their environment, and conclude that humanity no longer has the right to exist. There follows a prolonged struggle between humanity and the Cylons/meerkats, in which both sides commit atrocities and then claim the moral high ground--or, at least, they would, if either side were willing to have a discussion, which they aren't, as that would involve recognizing the personhood of their opponents. Veniss is weakest when it tries to convince us that we should take the meerkats' arguments seriously or that we should sympathize with the humans' unwillingness to acknowledge the meerkats as living beings--we've seen it all done before, and it wasn't particularly interesting the first time around.

For similar reasons, the four short stories packaged as extras in Bantam's trade paperback edition of the novel also fail to ignite. We haven't developed the deep personal feelings for Veniss that would inspire us to visit it again (and anyway, none of the stories take place in the city--"The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight" and "Detectives, Cadavers" take place in Dayton Central before the collapse, and "A Heart for Lucretia" and the novella "Balzac's War" take place outside the city after the meerkat takeover), and as SF shorts they are mostly unsuccessful, despite a few lovely and stirring images.

Despite these flaws, there are quite a few ways in which Veniss Underground works. It works as a sad, uncertain love story. The story is told from the points of view of three characters. The first, the selfish, unthinking artist Nicholas, is an overgrown child. He acts on whims without considering the consequences of his actions, and expects those who love him to tolerate and often compensate for his many weaknesses. Nicholas makes a shady deal with the aforementioned Quin, and vanishes into Veniss' underworld. His twin sister, the cerebral, responsible Nicola, who works as a computer programmer in a futile attempt to hold back the chaos threatening the city, feels his absence like a lost limb, and breaks through her shell of loneliness to search for him. When Nicola vanishes, probably at Quin's behest, her former lover Shadrach, still carrying a torch for her and crushed by the guilt of having sent Nicholas to Quin and lied to Nicola about doing so, journeys into Veniss Underground to find her. There are no happy lovers' meetings in Veniss Underground--in fact, the closest thing the novel offers to a happy ending is the characters' ability to put their love aside. Nicola is freed from her crippling connection to Nicholas, and Shadrach learns to accept that Nicola doesn't love him. Nevertheless, love permeates the novel's every page and informs the characters' every action. It humanizes them, and makes their mistakes familiar and explainable.

Which is a good thing, because another way in which Veniss Underground works is as a mythic quest. Shadrach's journey into the city's lightless underground levels (where he was born, and from which he had made a lucky escape) takes up the bulk of the story. He travels deep into the city's bowels, far lower than the relatively sane underground levels in which he spent his youth, and the journey strips away his pretensions, his illusions, the mask of urbane sophistication he has carefully cultivated in his years above ground. Shadrach arrives at his destination a shadow of the man he was, and at the same time the very core of who he is. VanderMeer uses the myth to its greatest effect--he tells a larger than life story but maintains the humanity of his characters. Shadrach is neither a hero nor an anti-hero, and although his actions are extraordinary, Shadrach himself remains human--flawed, quirky, and, even in the midst of a surreal nightmare, believably ordinary.

The novel also works as a web of literary references, quotes, and allusions. Shardrach's journey there and back again frequently echoes Dante's journey into the inferno, and also references the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Quin, the novel's villain and prime mover, is named in homage of author Edward Whittemore, a favorite of VandeMeer's, and several other characters and locations in the novel are named in honor of other writers. For all the fun that discovering these references offers readers, and for all that recognizing them deepens our experience of the novel, VanderMeer never makes the mistake of turning Veniss into an intellectual puzzle. He echoes, recalls, and sometimes outright cribs from other authors, but he never loses his own voice (several of them, in fact--the three point of view characters each have a distinct narrative voice that suits their personality and function in the story) or the thread of his own story. Surrounded by giants, VanderMeer impressively maintains an iron grip on his work--instead of creating an echo of others' art, he makes their work his own.

Veniss works as a work of horror--at first a Frankensteinian one, as the characters describe successful and unsuccessful experiments with the medium of flesh, and later a more visceral one, as in the scene in which Shadrach makes his way through a mountain of rotting flesh to where Nicola has been abandoned by her kidnappers (many reviewers have said that VanderMeer's descriptions in these scenes recall the artist Bosch, and since I'm not overly familiar with him I'll have to take their word for it). Towards the end of the book, as Shadrach comes closer to Quin, the creatures he encounter grow strange and unreal, conglomerations of body parts and sheer imagination. VanderMeer never lets this fondness for gore and body parts overwhelm his storytelling (see MiƩville, China). He doesn't stop to marvel at yet another strange creation, or to gape in horror at yet more flesh and body fluids. He maintains a tight control of his story, using the horror elements to advance the plot and not as a goal unto themselves. It is yet another demonstration of VanderMeer's skill as an author (as is the fact that, unlike other modern world-creators of the fantasy-slash-horror ilk, VanderMeer tells his story in a svelte 200 pages).

But perhaps most importantly, Veniss Underground works when it tries to be funny. This is a novel, after all, in which the main character's Virgil is the surly, disembodied, slowly dying head of a meerkat, superglued to a plate and named John the Baptist. There is also a delightful absurdity to a sequence near the end of the novel, in which Shadrach gains the services of a creature called a Gollux, who speaks (through what might be its anus) in a bizarre, semi-robotic fashion.
"I am the Gollux. I am not a flawed Gollux. I am a flawed location. The Gollux was not meant to be contained in the skull of a swannerbee. It was the swannerbee's flaw to have a Gollux for a brain."
VanderMeer doesn't draw the reader's attention to the inherent absurdity of this character--or any other of Quin's creations--but neither does he ignore it. Veniss isn't a laugh-out-loud novel, but by refusing to take himself too seriously (or to allow his characters to do the same) VanderMeer encourages his readers to recognize the absurd in his invented world and be tickled by it. It's a humanizing touch, like Shadrach's quirks or the unrequited love between the three main characters.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about Veniss Underground is how easily the entire novel could have failed to work, the many pitfalls that VanderMeer could have fallen into. What we get instead is a carefully controlled, remarkable tightrope walk, a balancing act between grandiose myth and petty humanity, fluid-and-gore dripping horror and dark humor, clever literary allusions and the author's own voice and direction. In the face of these accomplishments, VanderMeer's failures seem pale and insignificant. This is a smart, beautiful, thought-provoking novel that is going to stay with me for quite some time (what is the significance, for instance, of the fact that the three point of view characters tell their stories in the first, second, and third persons?), and a remarkable achievement by an author who constantly demonstrates his vital importance to the genre. I didn't find what I had expected in Veniss Underground, but I certainly found plenty of reasons to keep reading.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the VanderMeer book, but I'm suspecting that a) the Gollux is yet another literary reference and b) you didn't notice because you haven't read James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks.
If I'm right then I urge you to rectify it as soon as possible - it's one of the greatest fairy stories ever written and only 86 short pages.
"I am the Golux," said the Golux proudly. "The only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device."

JeffV said...

Got it in one, Brixtonbrood.

And I LOVE Thirteen Clocks.

Abigail--I never meant for it to be a SF novel. I meant for it to be a Boschian Decadent novel, with dark humor. Read as a SF novel, or as an attempt to create a realistic future, it's a failure, absolutely. I meant it to be a fantasy novel set in the future.

Re the other stories--I think "Balzac's War" holds up quite nicely in the realism department.


JeffV (And Evil Monk...)

JeffV said...

Which is to say, I'm in agreement with you about the failures, although it's hard for me to see how they could have been made successes without harming the other elements of the story. One editor wanted me to turn it into a 300-page book with much more explanation of the world.

Also, although the accompanying stories are all set in the same "milieu", they're all at different levels--i.e., I wrote them all at vastly different times, so it's kind of like they're all different versions of the place.

Anyway, I'm really glad you liked it for the reasons you mention. Especially the humor bit, because a lot of people haven't noticed that at all.

One last thing--I really am glad to have discerning readers like you. I'm as dismayed by undiluted adulation as I am by unthinking negative comments.



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