Jeff VanderMeer – Shriek: An Afterword (2006)

Shriek

Why did the mushroom join the party? Because he is a fungi.  8/10

Shriek: An Afterthought sounds like the final novel in a series, but it is actually the second book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris series. It follows on City of Saints and Madmen. And I am reading this series totally backwards, because I started with the third and final entry, Finch, and now moved to Shriek. But it’s not hard to follow what is going on. Both of these books are set in the city Ambergris, which is shared between normal humans and the mysterious gray caps, which are mushroom people who live in caves under the city.

Jeff Vandermeer uses his Ambergris series to play around with different styles of storytelling. His first book was a collection of vignettes, letters and so on that together created the world of Ambergris. The third novel Finch is a noir thriller about a detective investigating a gray cap murder. And Shriek is something different again: it’s a biography of the fringe historian Duncan Shriek, who plays an important role in the city Ambergris’s history.

But here is the brilliant setup of this novel: Duncan Shriek had a habit of disappearing, and when everyone thought he was gone forever his sister Janice Shriek wrote Duncan’s biography. But Duncan came back, got his hands on the biography and started annotating his sister’s text, and of course falling over his sister’s opinions on his life. So, now we read Janice Shriek’s work on Duncan, with Duncan’s comments on his own life story. The sibling rivalry is palpable in the text. What’s more, Janice doesn’t understand Duncan as much as she thought she did, and Duncan has some snappy and funny comments to make. As a novel, it works brilliantly.

And Janice isn’t the best person to write a biography like this; she’s been accused of being pompous and pretentious. And this gives Jeff Vandermeer the excuse to overwrite this story to a humorous effect. In addition, there is another effect that Vandermeer creates by being pompous: he sounds like H.P. Lovecraft. Especially because Shriek takes the form of a biography, and because the life of Duncan Shriek hints at all sort of dreadful and supernatural dangers, that makes Shriek feel like a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale. At other times, it is closer to a Nabokovian Lolita story.

This is as much the story of Janice as it is of Duncan. She is part of high society and an addict, and her life story can be read between the lines. So, we have two unreliable narrators here, who together try to approach the history of the city Ambergris, with which their lives are so strongly intertwined. The ominous feeling of mystery that Vandermeer creates about these people and the city is what drives the book forward. The plot itself remains elusive, but the unspoken mysteries keep on teasing. And all the while, we get to know Janice and Duncan as fascinating characters in their own right. Their sibling connection is strained, but they keep finding support in each other.

Although there is no clear, explicit conflict to drag the reader into the story, Vandermeer has such a smooth writing style that I just flew through the novel at high speed. The narration by Janice Shriek is a bit over the top, but it is also playful and very introspective and moody, and that just happens to fit my sentiments closely. Vandermeer addresses in a very self-conscious way how we create stories to tell ourselves so that our lives make some sense. And in the lives of the Shriek siblings there is so much mystery that there is an immediate need for storytelling as a sort of therapeutic exercise.

The story meanders a lot in plot but also in tone. Chapters have stuff to say on their own, but it feels as if Vandermeer didn’t have a clear idea of what this novel had to be when he started out, and in writing he floats from one influence to another. What starts out as a mystery changes into a love story and changes into something else again, and I don’t get the impression that Vandermeer planned these changes ahead of time. The lack of focus in this regard made the story drag a bit. It’s hard to get a grip on it while you’re reading.

Shriek is very much a predecessor of the later Area X trilogy – much more so than the third Ambergris novel Finch. It concerns an “alien” world that intrudes upon the normal, mundane human one, and it concerns an academic trying to make sense of it and becoming part of what he is investigating. Shriek is a fine accomplishment and a very intriguing piece of work. The whole Ambergris trilogy comes highly recommended.

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