Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by David McWilliam
28 July 2010
Rarely have I felt such disappointment after reading such a great book. Finch is a standalone novel set in the city of Ambergris, which has been the setting of two previous books, City of Saints & Madmen (2001) and Shriek: An Afterword (2006), neither of which I have read as of yet. This oversight will soon be remedied, for it is the source of my disappointment: whilst Finch works perfectly well as a self-contained story, the phantasmagorical setting and epic resolution feel part of a far larger work and I rather wish that I had read the earlier works in advance.
Nevertheless, Finch wastes no time introducing readers to the harsh realities of the city of Ambergris. Its human population live under the totalitarian administration of the gray caps, a fungal race that rose up six years before the novel's present to take control of the city. They have almost blanket surveillance thanks to "spore cameras," but lack the resources to monitor everything that occurs in the labyrinthine city. Decay permeates Finch, from the once mighty Ambergris itself, now overgrown with fungal structures that are tearing it apart from beneath, to the political system imposed by the occupying gray gaps, down to individual citizens, infected by malignant fungal spores. All this creates an intense sense of hopelessness and treachery, as befits the taut noir thriller plot.
John Finch works as a detective for his fungal overlords. In the novel's first chapter he is called to a crime scene in which the corpses of a human and a gray cap have been found together in an apartment, with no clear cause of death. Finch rarely works murder cases and yet his boss, a vindictive gray cap whose name he mispronounces as Heretic, has made him lead on this one. Their working relationship is uneasy, as Finch remains ever aware that Heretic has the power to send him to the work camps, or worse.
VanderMeer's descriptions often give impressions of the weird flora and fauna of Ambergris but not complete images. Among other things, this technique is an extremely effective way of maintaining the mystique of the gray caps even though Finch has to work closely with them. Consider the portrayal of Heretic:
The wetness of its moist glottal attempt at speech made most humans uncomfortable [ . . . ] Heretic smiled: rows and rows of needle lines set into a face a little like a squished-in shark's snout. Finch couldn't tell if the lines were gills or teeth, but they seemed to flutter and breathe a little. Wyte said he'd seen tiny creatures in there, once. (p. 4)
The humid weight of Heretic was at his side now. A smell like garbage and burnt glass. Made him nauseous. (p. 7)
The latter quotation highlights another tool used by VanderMeer to build a believable setting, one often neglected by writers: the sense of smell. Not since Patrick Süskind's Perfume (1985) have I read a novel that so effectively uses the protagonist's olfactory capacities to bring a city so vividly to life. VanderMeer evokes the humid, overgrown fungal cityscapes of Ambergris through frequent references to its nauseating stenches, with the ascendency of the gray caps marked by the putrid scents of decay and mould, all contributing to the overwhelmingly gloomy backdrop to Finch's investigation.
Finch is both protagonist and focalizing character, meaning that the reader's knowledge is restricted to what he experiences, with the narrative offering sufficient clues to allow them to guess at what comes next whilst still providing numerous surprises. Indeed, VanderMeer's plotting is masterful, to the point where Finch is able to indulge in several significant subplots without ever losing momentum. This is no small feat when introducing a surreal fantasy setting and weaving together the tension of a noir thriller with such science fictional tropes as interdimensional and time travel.
The gray caps' control of Ambergris is absolute and insidious. Finch is acutely aware of his compromised position, trying to protect those who commit minor infringements and secretly loathing the gray caps, whilst showing them obsequious obedience and enforcing their laws, illustrated by his recollection of a phrase he saw written on a wall at a crime scene: "Everyone's a collaborator. Everyone's a rebel" (p. 3). Such paranoid slogans are reminiscent of William Burroughs's seminal, hallucinatory novel Naked Lunch (1959), in which the reader is immersed in a world governed by shadowy forces that shape the direction of people's lives, as they try in vain to resist control.
As in Naked Lunch, in Finch the laws of consensual reality are altered, as characters are infected by hostile organisms and hallucinogenic drugs permanently dissolve the borders between the phantoms of the mind and phenomenological experience. Whereas Burroughs's novel presents a shifting, unstable reality, with bizarre transformations operating on an individual level, in Finch the city of Ambergris is overrun by the otherworldly made concrete. Buildings are destroyed and replaced by fungal structures that erupt from the gray caps' underground domain, whilst a miasma of sentient spores rolls perpetually through its streets. When people themselves are infected, their fates can be peculiarly awful. The slow transformation of Finch's partner Wyte resembles some of the changes experienced by characters in Naked Lunch, but becomes more tragic than shocking, reminiscent of Seth Brundle's gradual descent into abject monstrosity in David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986).
Other fungi have narcotic effects. Some are used to drug the population; Finch discovers a document written by one of the rebels that explains their function, describing them as follows:
Purple "drug" mushrooms with ball caps and almost no stems—dispensed from the red "tree" mushrooms, these purple mushrooms are clearly meant to serve as "crowd control" by giving the people of the city sustenance and making them dependent. These mushrooms create a strong addiction by affecting the pleasure centres of the brain. They also create hallucinations intended to pacify, most drawn from happy memories. (p. 61)
These mushrooms work in a similar manner to soma in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), an opiate for the masses that keeps the population docile and controllable. However, unlike those distributed in Huxley's benign dystopia, the gray caps' drugs are in limited supply, foregrounding the desperation of addiction that prevents unified resistance.
Yet other mushrooms offer more mind-expanding experiences, with potentially deadly consequences. One of Finch's duties in pursuing his investigation is to introduce spores to the two corpses that enter their brains and harvest memories. The resulting memory bulb, which grows out of the corpse, can be consumed by an individual who then experiences the memories it contains as a vivid hallucination. Finch is able to survive their consumption, but comes out somewhat altered, as his grip on reality is significantly weakened.
Disturbing metamorphoses thus lace the narrative, blurring the lines between humans and gray caps as the latter use their biotechnology to strengthen their stranglehold on the city's populace. It is through this landscape that Finch must travel as he seeks answers to the seemingly impossible murder case. Along the way he is presented with competing interpretations of the clues he uncovers about rival power groups who hope to influence Ambergris's future. Fearful of the gray caps, openly hostile towards the Partials, Finch must also negotiate the complex network of rebels and spies from foreign powers as he seeks to discover how the two corpses came to be found in that apartment. Meanwhile, the gray caps are intensifying work on a bizarre construction project as they erect two towers in the city's harbour. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that the case provides a key to a much larger mystery, one that will change Ambergris forever.
As I stated earlier in the review, the scope and scale of Finch's ending is deeply satisfying as a conclusion to the novel's story, but hints frustratingly at a greater resolution for the Ambergris cycle as a whole. This should not be taken as a criticism of Finch, but as a warning to those who feel inclined to read it as a standalone novel that questions undoubtedly posed in the earlier works will be answered, such as the origins of the gray caps and the importance of certain characters to the fate of the city.
In an innovative move, VanderMeer commissioned a soundtrack for the novel by the band Murder by Death. This is a sombre, cinematic score that uses a wide variety of instruments to create an organic, melancholy, episodic soundscape that is evocative of the decaying city. The slow finger-picked guitars have a forlorn quality, with "Finch's Theme" and its reprise conveying a sense of exhaustion, whilst frantic, scraping string sections in "Human Memory Bulb" portray the rapidity with which the protagonist is bombarded by images towards the end of his first trip. The album provides an enjoyable accompaniment to the novel, but I felt that it was far too short; just as you become fully immersed in the work it comes to a premature end.
Without doubt, Finch is a triumph in terms of both vision and execution. Ambergris is a city that rivals China Miéville's New Crobuzon as a lived-in, nightmarish, phantasmagorical urban sprawl. Whether the New Weird was a movement is debatable—perhaps it represented nothing more than a collective response at a particular moment in time. Nevertheless, Finch provides further proof of the importance of the authors associated with the New Weird as they continue to push at the boundaries of genre fiction. Finch is the second novel I have read by VanderMeer, the first being Veniss Underground (2003), and both have impressed me with their stylistic flourishes and boundless imagination. On the basis of what I have read thus far he is an extremely talented author, and now has my full attention.