Thursday, January 6, 2011

City of Saints and Madmen

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
Random House Publishing, 2006 edition
Trade Paperback, 704 pages
ISBN-13: 9780553383577
very highly recommended

In City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer has reinvented the literature of the fantastic. You hold in your hands an invitation to a place unlike any you’ve ever visited–an invitation delivered by one of our most audacious and astonishing literary magicians.
City of elegance and squalor. Of religious fervor and wanton lusts. And everywhere, on the walls of courtyards and churches, an incandescent fungus of mysterious and ominous origin. In Ambergris, a would-be suitor discovers that a sunlit street can become a killing ground in the blink of an eye. An artist receives an invitation to a beheading–and finds himself enchanted. And a patient in a mental institution is convinced he’s made up a city called Ambergris, imagined its every last detail, and that he’s really from a place called Chicago.…
By turns sensuous and terrifying, filled with exotica and eroticism, this interwoven collection of stories, histories, and “eyewitness” reports invokes a universe within a puzzlebox where you can lose–and find–yourself again.
My Thoughts:

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer is a collection of short stories and supporting material that is classified as postmodern fantasy. The connection between the stories and other material is that they are all set in VanderMeer's fictional city of Ambergris.

VanderMeer has created a totally new, unique world in Ambergris and for that he is to be applauded. Although humans currently live in Ambergris, they are not the original, or only inhabitants. Originally a race of mushroom-like humanoids nicknamed "gray caps" had a city on the same site, but they were violently killed or driven underground and their city was mostly destroyed. In Ambergris you will celebrate the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, which is even more dangerous than walking down Albumuth Boulevard. And you will want to get off the streets at night when the gray caps come out.

Since City of Saints and Madmen features recurring characters and self-referential plots, you need to take your time reading it because the details and characters will matter. Even though it is very involved, dense material, it will not be difficult or drudgery to read because VanderMeer is a very good writer and there is a lot of humor found in the stories and supporting material.

I enjoyed the footnotes in "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris." In "The Strange Case of X," the institutionalized X is a writer who carries around his book, City of Saints and Madmen. He is convinced he is really from a city called Chicago and made up Ambergris. "The Transformation of Martin Lake" is a World Fantasy Award winning short story. Even the Glossary, A Note on Fonts, and About the Author sections should not be skipped.

I should note that there were earlier editions of City of Saints and Madmen that do not have all the material found in the 2006 edition. I wanted to read City of Saints and Madmen before VandeerMeer's other two books set in Ambergris, Shriek: An Afterword and Finch.
Very Highly Recommended - but it's not going to be for everyone

Table of Contents:
The Book of Ambergris
The Real VanderMeer: Introduction
Dradin, In Love
The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris
The Transformation of Martin Lake
The Strange Case of X
A Letter from Dr. V to Dr. Simpkin
X's Notes
The Release of Belacqua
King Squid
The Hoegbotton Family History
The Cage
In the Hours After Death
A Note from Dr. V to Dr. Simpkin
The Man Who Had No Eyes (encrypted)
The Ambergris Glossary

Dradin, in love, beneath the window of his love, staring up at her while crowds surge and seethe around him, bumping and bruising him all unawares in their rough-clothed, bright-rouged thousands. For Dradin watches her, she taking dictation from a machine, an inscrutable block of gray from which sprout the earphones she wears over her delicate egg-shaped head. Dradin is struck dumb and dumber still by the seraphim blue of her eyes and the cascade of long and lustrous black hair over her shoulders, her pale face gloomy against the glass and masked by the reflection of the graying sky above. She is three stories up, ensconced in brick and mortar, almost a monument, her seat near the window just above the sign that reads "Hoegbotton & Sons, Distributors." Hoegbotton & Sons: the largest importer and exporter in all of lawless Ambergris, that oldest of cities named for the most valuable and secret part of the whale. "Dradin in Love," pg. 7

The heat withers him this far from the river, but he ignores the noose of sweat round his neck. "Dradin in Love," pg. 8

"He's a Living Saint. A professional holy man. You should remember that from your theology classes. I know I must have taught you about Living Saints. Unless, of course, I switched that with a unit on Dead Martyrs. No other kind, really. That's a joke, Dradin. Have the decency to laugh." Dradin in Love," pg. 51

3. I should add to footnote 2 that he most interesting information will be included in footnote form, and I will endeavor to include as many footnotes as possible. Indeed, information alluded to in footnote form will later be expanded upon in the main text, thus confusing any of you who have decided not to read the footnotes. This is the price to be paid by those who would rouse an elderly historian from his slumber behind a desk in order to coerce him to write for a common travel guide series. "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," pg. 103-104

One blustery spring day in the legendary metropolis of Ambergris, the artist Martin Lake received an invitation to a beheading. "The Transformation of Martin Lake," pg. 196

No matter: the words of his colleagues still reverberated in his head: "X is trapped between the hemispheres of his own brain" ; "X is a tough nut to crack"; "X will make an excellent thesis on guilt." "The Strange Case of X," pg. 279

He ignored my probing, said, "Do you think I wanted to write that stuff? When the book came out, all anyone wanted were more Ambergris stories. I couldn't sell anything not set in Ambergris. And then, after the initial clamor died down, I couldn't write anything else. It was horrible. I'd spend ten hours a day at the typewriter just making this world I'd created more and more real in this world. I felt like a sorcerer summoning up a demon." "The Strange Case of X," pg. 286-287

FLATULENCE, ORDER OF. The most deadly of the orders. See also: Living Saints. "The Ambergris Glossary," pg 19

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