Discontent, Illusion, and Murder: Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen

Reviewed by Mark Rich

City of Saints and Madmen cover

Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen is a playfully ambitious book. Not a novel, but rather a thematic collection, it contains works of short fiction—and also what we might call fictional associated matter—linked by their all having something to do with an imaginary place named Ambergris, an exotic city full of odd dwellings and odder dwellers. The book contains over a dozen sections of greatly varying length. Of them, in my reading of the book, three works emerged as central: "Dradin, In Love," "The Transformation of Martin Lake," and "The Strange Case of X." These three are the most interesting and compelling narratives—and also the parts where VanderMeer's playful ambition appears at its most balanced.

"Dradin, In Love," follows a young, supposedly out-of-work missionary as he tries to establish a place for himself in the city of Ambergris. He falls in love with a woman he glimpses in an upstairs window of the offices of Hoegbottom, a company that seems to have tentacle-like arms running through the social fabric of Ambergris; and despite being told by a dwarf, named Dvorak, that he has fallen in love with just an image, he persists in his passion. In the course of trying to win this strange love, he travels through some odd parts of the city, and visits the priest Cadimon Signal, his former teacher. He sets up a tryst with his lover, or at least innocently believes he does. Later, disappointed, he enters into a series of dark events involving his pursuit by unpleasant denizens of the nighttime city, led by Dvorak.

"Dradin" is told directly, as a narrative. It moves from Dradin's vision of the mechanical secretary as an object of love, toward a series of events that reflect changes in his attitude not only toward the secretary, but towards Ambergris itself, with its most unpleasant side embodied in the figure of Dvorak.

The second work, "The Transformation of Martin Lake," follows another young soul, this time a painter who hangs out with other malcontents. Martin Lake feels somewhat buffeted by an arts scene too heavily burdened by the influence of one composer, named Voss Bender—who, it is rumored, has died. Visiting the enormous post office, which suddenly has been renamed in honor of Bender, Lake receives an invitation "to a beheading . . . please arrive in costume." Lake's journey to his appointment takes on mystery, as he loses himself in the fog and encounters the tall figure of an "insect-catcher," who evokes for Lake his father, also an insect-catcher. Lake then finds himself ushered into a mansion, and into the presence of a few other costumed figures. They have Voss Bender in their hands. It is Lake's job, in costume, to deliver the killing blow to the man whose artistic influence he hates.

"Martin Lake" is told in two intertwined narrative strands. The first is a somewhat academic essay about Lake, pursuing the question of why Lake changed from a mediocre, would-be painter into an artist abruptly producing vivid and intense works. The second strand follows Lake's personal story, starting with his meeting with a gallery owner who is also the author of a monograph on Lake. This more vivid part of the tale hinges upon violent crime, and the effect of this violence upon Lake as an artist.

The third work, "The Strange Case of X," takes place in a prison of some sort, located within Ambergris. In a story that involves shifting points of view and shifting expository styles, an inquisitor tries to get to the bottom of the story of prisoner "X." X maintains what he has maintained before, that he has created an imaginary place in his mind, named Ambergris, where he is now trapped. He is an author trapped in his own fiction.

Three motifs heavily present in these stories are those of discontented youth, trapped in apparently callous, uncaring society; the embracing of illusion as reality; and crime, specifically murder, as the transformative event that creates character and meaning out of the unformed stuff of youth.

The Book Itself

A fourth and different part of the book is solidly interesting, too: the physical object of the book itself, the mass of bound and printed paper that arrives via print-on-demand, or "POD," technology. Print-on-demand seems to have allowed some books to see print that would have gone unpublished, before. In this case, it has allowed a VanderMeer collection to appear in an unusual physical form, for the packaging itself is more intrinsically a part of the overall, thematic assemblage than would normally be the case, in traditional publishing. That the author has had a considerable amount of creative control over the book cover seems quite apparent.

The cover design* evokes diverse things: religious icons, an art gallery, and the effervescently wordy bottles of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap—an allusion that will be lost on all those who have never gone shopping in natural food stores. As I think about it, however, the comparison may be apt. Dr. Bronner's bottle labels are covered in quotations, Biblical and otherwise, and with enthusiastic claims for the many uses of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap, in small print tightly packing every space available on the label (although it may be these quotations and claims are less effusive now than in the 1970s). On VanderMeer's book, the dust jacket is the label, adorned with a central color picture on front and back, and otherwise tightly packed with writing—in this case with a vignette that gives hint and taste of what is within, possibly even making promises, since the title of the book is City of Saints and Madmen, and the cover story ends by equating that same city with "the true light." The title itself can be found on the front cover only by actually looking for it—a distinctly non-traditional approach for book presentation.

The flyleaf tells about the author in half truths and whole lies, in a fictionally reassembled autobiography such as writers occasionally engage in. The recurring motifs that appear here would seem both absurd and the products of obsession were it not for the taste of the frivolous that creeps in—a sense of fun then reinforced by the title page cartoon, with its echo of the pen style of Gahan Wilson.

That this dust jacket is printed on unusually heavy card stock matches the fact that it is a functional part of the book. It also conceals the fact that the actual book boards are unusually nonfunctional: they are a featureless, glossy gray on front and back, with only three words, "City of Saints"—not even the full title of the book—appearing on the spine. No author, no publisher—and not even quite the title.

If this book, as a physical object, were to appear as a prop in a piece of fiction—which it does, actually, in the cover vignette, and also within the book itself—the narrator might have viewed it as being heavily symbolic: it is a book that almost insists on being judged by its cover—a cover that slips off, leaving a very nearly blank surface, the sort of blank cover you would find on a blank book.

Print-on-demand technology is a kind of instant-fix technology, a way of making something relatively quick and simple that was once laborious and complex. Observers of the book scene have expressed the same worries about print on demand that they have expressed about electronic publishing: that the rushing to print would tend to bleed over into other parts of the book-preparation process, so that other laborious stages, such as the editing, might be done via an instant-fix approach of the spell-checker variety.

For writers with a penchant for shaping phrases with unlikely combinations of elements, in which meaning is stretched and sometimes broken, the reduction of editorial influence could actually prove beneficial. Is this the case here? I succumb to the urge to pluck out a few phrases, to find out:

On page 27, we find, ". . . north of it stood the religious district and his old teacher, Cadimon Signal." Also, we read of rails "curving into the air with a profound sense of futility." And, "He was in no mood for such a death of metal."

Then, to pluck some impressions from these lines:

The first quotation does suggest that the risk of the print-on-demand book-making may be a real one: it may make it too easy to ignore the sort of slow, laborious editorial process that would catch the false parallel structure in a phrase such as, "north of it stood the religious district and his old teacher, Cadimon Signal," or perhaps clarify the symbolic "standing" of Signal above the merely physical religious district.

On the other hand, the second quotation suggests that the writer is letting word meanings slip a bit, as a part of the creative process, or possibly as a way to encourage the creative process; rails "curving into the air with a profound sense of futility" are rails being dealt with in a language reminiscent of associative poetry, as opposed to prose. When words are used this way, an editor would not necessarily feel free to say, "Say, shouldn't we change this to—?" While the rails may, in curving, evoke that sense of futility, rather than be "curving with," an editor might decide that since the sense is communicated, the grammar could be bent.

The second and third quotations suggest that the writing is sometimes being guided by sonority, rather than always by the flow of meaning. This can be a positive thing, if a music of verbal sound arises that never would otherwise, in a more rational approach to the actual writing.

It can also be negative—especially from the point of view of the reviewer. If sense sometimes surrenders to sound, it means the details within the writing cannot always be trusted: an element's appearance at one point in the story may be a freak, or improvisation, that has nothing to do with the appearance of the same or similar elements elsewhere.

"Dradin": Character and Style

Dradin, protagonist of "Dradin, In Love," is an out-of-work missionary—which seems a peculiar kind of creature to be. A missionary presumably never is out of work, so long as the church in question exists; and the existence of gold coins in Dradin's pockets, which he spends freely, suggest he was never a missionary in the first place, at least not in the way we usually think, when we think of missionaries. Not only does he possess gold, but the way he spends it, freely and easily, strikes a discordant note, when we compare his actions to those of conventional missionaries out of our own experience: for he buys a book of erotica, drinks a series of alcoholic drinks, and eats greasy food. When he engages in these actions, his thoughts are free of the constraints that hedge in the usual missionary's thoughts. Never reprimanding himself for thoughts that lead to earthly concerns rather than spiritual ones, he regards himself as becoming "in truth a missionary, converting himself to the cause of love." Guilt seems to be a sort of cloud of feeling that the breezes blowing down the streets of Ambergris disperse. Even when engaging in cad-like behavior in front of his former teacher, barely a flicker of guilt appears in his tumbling thoughts.

Dradin's character is that of a callow and somewhat insensitive young man. In terms of the adjectives applied to him, he is several times described as being struck dumb, or speechless; yet in terms of his active engagement with other characters, what becomes strikingly apparent is his inability to hear. The dwarf, representing the cruel reality underlying Ambergris, shows how easily and willingly reality can bend to conform to mental fantasy. First he informs Dradin, and the reader, that the vision with whom Dradin has fallen "in love" is exactly a vision, and nothing more. Only after being foiled in his attempt to convey the truth of the situation does Dvorak "deceive" Dradin, by participating in Dradin's fantasy. Dvorak acts as Dradin's teacher as to the realities of Ambergris—and is rewarded for his direct, hands-on teaching by having his lessons violently reflected back upon him.

Dradin's rebellion against Dvorak may mark the moment Dradin becomes rational in his actions. He has learned something, and has finally decided to approach the world from a practical standpoint. "Irrational," however, better describes his actions throughout the story, and also describes how he chooses to find his reward, after overcoming deadly peril. His irrationality appears from the beginning, with his initial dealings with Dvorak, and with his fantasies about his beloved; and it reaches its fever pitch in his visit to the monastery. On his way there, he ventures through an alley inhabited by mushroom-people—a short trip that may be taken as symbolic or literal. At the monastery afterwards, Dradin takes a disrespectful, confrontational, and even bull-headed approach to his former teacher, who himself speaks rationally to Dradin until he gives up and orders the young man bodily thrown out for being an unpleasant nuisance.

Despite Dradin's having unsympathetic qualities, he manages nevertheless to capture some of the reader's sympathy: he is, after all, operating in what seems an irrational world. An irrational world may not respond to reason, or to the typical qualities we would ascribe to Goodness.

Ambergris, very much like Dradin, is irrational and seemingly intentionally excessive in its qualities. It is probably a greater figure in the story than Dradin himself—yet it is cut from the same cloth, and perhaps bears the same face. Just as Dradin is a mix of almost random elements, the city appears to the reader like a collage of objects taken from here and there, hither and yon. Elements drawn from pre-industrial milieus stand juxtaposed with those from industrial societies; and they are described using vocabularies that echo that juxtaposition.

Where does this urge toward such juxtaposition come from? "Dradin, In Love" appears to be an instance of the American writer working the vein of the postmodern, Oriental romance. It might also be an instance of an American writer fighting against domestic traditions.

Signposts placed throughout the story show that the place being explored is intentionally foreign. It seems a conscious attempt to evoke a non-American scene when, for instance, a dwarf is named "Dvorak Nibelung;" when a bookstore is the "Borges Bookstore;" when miscellaneous store names have decidedly British or Continental overtones, as in "Madame Lowery's Crochets" (sic), or "The Lady's Emporium;" and when a bird being invoked is a jackdaw rather than, say, a crow (p. 23). While the occasional name evokes the American scene—"Morrow Religious Academy," for instance—the predominant tendency seems to be toward purposeful breaking from any sense of American scene, tone, or feeling.

This tendency also appears in the kind of language being used. To the reader, some phrases have the ring of other places, or other times; or at least the ring of the grotesque and strange, two things that are, in themselves, signposts of other-ness. In the textual world that is Ambergris, for instance, a smile can be "gangrenous" (p. 19); "old avenues" can "lay a-drowning" in scents (p. 27); and people "dreamt" instead of dreamed (p. 31). Perhaps even the biological oddity of slugs having shells (p. 40), rather than being a mistake of terminology, is a conscious effort to describe a world that Is Not, rather than Is.

In a way, the story's eclectic language may be appropriate. To create a fantasy world from a whole cloth is virtually impossible for the American writer who does not wish to embrace American themes. Much of the tradition of fantastic literature comes from overseas—overseas in either direction—and the temptation to take the melting-pot approach, more apparent in general American culture of the 1700s or earlier 1800s, and still apparent in some of the country's cities—is probably impossible to ignore.

The irony is that the strenuous effort to break free of American themes and concerns brings a postmodern Oriental fantasy perilously close to the escapism that has become such a factor in the make-up of the American soul. Viewed from that vantage point, Dradin appears akin to the nearly mythic figure of the Spoiled American: the privileged one who is unaware of his own privilege, who insists on having more.

"Martin Lake": Murder and Transformation

A motif common to both "Dradin" and "The Transformation of Martin Lake" is that of the disenchanted transformation—the reduction of a transformative experience to mundane change, with the depth of emotional meaning usually associated with transformation flattened.

Dradin, initially transported by an emotion he takes for love, concludes his would-be affair by running off with the head of the dismembered mechanical secretary. His lover, even, is reduced from the graceful efficiency of her working motion as a mechanical being, to a sculpted bust for a mantle piece; and his sexual ardor is replaced by a simple idol of what might have been, an idol for display. Even the event that seems to provide the actual moment of transformation for Dradin, his final confrontation with Dvorak, turns out to be an event that is more a plot element than something that alters him, since the emotional weight of the act is mainly in the excitement of action, and not in any mix of remorse and guilt, as we might expect.

In an odd parallel, Martin Lake also finds a bust in the ashes of the burnt estate where the crime took place (p. 179)—although, after initially planning to scavenge it for his apartment, for display, he discards it with a sense of disgust. The disgust, which stands in contrast to Dradin's lack of reflective emotion, is part of what makes Martin Lake a more interesting character, and his story more powerful. Dradin does seem nearly transformed into a scuttling cockroach, in his story, while Martin Lake's transformation seems a positive one, in contrast, even though it has been generated by horrific events. Lake does move, after all, from lack of achievement to achieved ambition.

The story of Lake's transformation from aspiring to inspired painter does, however, take a downward spiral similar to the one in Dradin's story. The story tells of a cultured world that places great value on artwork that has arisen from either cowardice or revelation; and that sends the story in its downward spiral. The cowardice was of a soul confronted with the choice of committing a foul crime or else dying, who chooses to live; and the revelation, if it was that instead of cowardice, was of a soul who realizes it not only is able to, but desires to, murder. It is the self-recognition of a deep-seated anti-social instinct, an instinct that then earns him the social recognition he craves.

As with Dradin, who murders before he rescues the insensate head of his supposed beloved, Martin Lake murders his artistic nemesis—"virtual tyrant of the arts," he calls him at one point (p. 134)—in order to succeed in his wooing the art-loving public. Unlike Dradin, who acquires the iconic head of his lover, Martin Lake himself becomes the icon, the object being studied in the monograph, an object detached from the interesting young artist Lake was, before the commission of his crime.

Also in common with Dradin, Martin Lake faces a world controlled by powerful outside forces. In Dradin's case, it is the omnipresent influence of the mercantile company, Hoegbottom, within whose offices Dradin's ideal woman works. For Martin Lake, it is the political and social influence of the "tyrant," Voss Bender. Dradin is estranged from the Hoegbottom-controlled world of Ambergris, in being unable to find work and security; and Lake is estranged from the Voss Bender-controlled society, in being unable to find himself, artistically, within those confines.

The curious parallel exists that each hero feels estranged from his respective father, who is not a disliked but rather respected figure; and each receives confirmation of the goodness, or perhaps love, of the father when undergoing his own coming of age.

Dradin expects the priest, Cadimon Signal, to cast shadows on the memory of his father, but instead hears words of praise from the priest—words that stand in stark contrast to how the priest regards Dradin himself. Martin Lake, on the other hand, has pursued a career in painting against his father's will; and he paints, from memory, his father's hands. The father later accepts that painting from him, in that way showing that Lake was right in following his calling, as a painter.

Although these stories are not explicitly about a son's relationship with his father, the events involving these fathers are the most emotionally vibrant ones in the stories.

Dradin's memory of household calm and of a meditative father has a warmth lacking elsewhere in his story, making the priest's fond memory of the father ring true. This makes the contrast between the priest's feeling toward the father and his feeling toward the failure of a son more of a turning point in the narrative than it might have been, otherwise.

Martin Lake's father is tied to the most striking image of his story: that of the insect-catcher, embodied not only in a painting of two hands being crawled upon by insects, but also in the actual figure of an insect-catcher, who appears out of the fog just moments before Martin Lake's descent into personal hell.

Unlike Dradin, Lake defeats the tyranny, and recovers the lost father. Even if he emerges as a damaged and perhaps pitiable figure, as far as society is concerned he has emerged whole.

"X": The Illusion of Mere Observation

The book, City of Saints and Madmen, changes its nature with "The Strange Case of X"—and it may actually change within the story itself, since the opening paragraphs use a similar kind of odd imagery as found in the earlier stories. Eye-catching phrases include, "methodical drizzle . . . an ephemeral rain," or, "the iron smell of mold." These odd word choices point to the fact that the story, and the reader, are again in the invented city of Ambergris. However, the style then changes.

The simplest way of describing the scenario of "X" is to say it is about an author who has slipped into the world of his literary imagination, and who is imprisoned there, literally within a prison.

How the narrative exactly fits around this basic scenario is hard to pin down, since pronouns sometimes shift—the narrator moves from "he" to "I" and back again—and the narrative style shifts, from faux-baroque, ornamental language to courtroom-transcript dryness. These shifting elements appear to be a way of turning the fictional world on its end, so that a fictional stand-in for the author can speak of connections between the imagined world and the real one; and as a way of creating the sense that something obsessive is taking place. It is either playful in its use of built-up narrative expectations, or else manipulative—to such a degree that, as a reader, only pages into "X," I began to wonder at what point the story would become precious, or self-indulgent; and later, when I finished, I left it with the apprehension that the story was the point at which the book as a whole was turning toward the kind of mildly amusing self-indulgence exhibited on the dust jacket sleeves, and turning away from the more deeply felt narrative exploration of the "Martin Lake" sort.

After this midway point some stories of the traditional sort do remain, such as "The Cage," an uncomplicated episode that illustrates the gradual return of the mushroom dwellers to effective power in Ambergris. Even so, "X" seems to be the point where, at the very least, the book turns away from fictional narrative, as a central focus, to fictional exploration of the motifs important to the fiction that began the book. In a sense, it is where the book turns from clever presentation of narrative to narrative presentation of cleverness.

The problem of such cleverness, presented seemingly for its own entertainment value rather than as an element stitched into something larger, is a real one for a reader such as I am: once I lose the thread of human applicability, the thread that ties the fictional experience to my ongoing, inner experience of the world as a reader, then I lose track of why I am reading. I began losing this thread in "The Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," in the first half of the book; and then thoroughly lost it in the "AppendiX" (sic), which comprises about an even half of this book, as it is printed. I do not doubt the value of intelligence at play, or clever world-building, or even clever world-taking-apart. I certainly do not doubt the value of experimental fiction, nor of fiction in which the narrator, parading as the author, feels the fictional need to intervene and intrude. At the same time, I must acknowledge that I occasionally raise a readerly white flag and surrender, letting text go undigested on the page, since to my eyes it seems to want to remain there rather than take the jump into the reading mind.

The incredibly large and from-whole-cloth fabricated bibliography, for instance, makes me think that the substantial parts of the book—"Dradin," "Martin Lake," and "X"—are not large enough to sustain such lengthy glosses and explanations and afterwords. The emotional peak of the book occurs in "Martin Lake," about a third of the way through the book as a physical thing. If that is the heart of the creature that this book is, then it seems to trail behind it a remarkably long tail.

What I might venture is being lost, in the course of the volume, is the sense of the necessary, a sense present in "Martin Lake" to the greatest degree: the things that appear on the pages are there because they need to be there. Sparks and flames of fictional necessity flare only now and then, through the pages remaining.

The irony of this is that some of the finest writing in the volume, with regard to tightness and rightness of word choice, occurs in "X." This fact gives the story the appearance of being the nearly literal picture of a struggle going on within the author, between the desire to succumb to the attractions of a fictional world of clever entertainments, and the desire to move onwards toward the creation of things stronger, better, and more true. Lovers of the strange and surreal will find a great deal to absorb and enchant them, in these stories. VanderMeer has staked out a claim in a fictional land that will appeal to all who dwell at least some of their lives in those invisible places created by the printed page. The stories struggle, in fact, with the very notion that we, as readers, do in some way dwell in these literary lands, and find them worth visiting and revisiting, as will certainly be the case for many readers with Ambergris.

* The covers of the hardback and paperback editions visible at Amazon are not identical, and if you actually click on the image for either, the "Look Inside" close-up is different yet again. The thumbnail for the hardback appears to be shown correctly, and the "Look Inside" image does show the painting featured on that cover, though in a different context; I haven't seen the paperback as of this writing, so I cannot comment on whether the thumbnail for the paperback or the close-up accurately represent that volume. [return]


Mark Rich has written critical work on authors including Cyril Kornbluth, Poe, and John Hersey, and writes extensively on history the history of American toys. He was a founding editor of The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, email mark.rich@sff.net.