Book Review

Ambergris by Jeff VanderMeer

a big book about mushrooms that are magic (not magic mushrooms)

April 6th 2022, 11am, London

I wanted to read a big book.

I needed to read a big book.

When I read a big book, I don’t feel obliged to make these little notes to myself that cause me to grow aware, if briefly, of my emotional discomfort.

I wanted to read a big book so I could be sucked off (lol) into an escapist alternative: I stalled reading multiple memoirs during mid-March, putting them aside because the pain of others was not a comfort, instead it became a benchmark. 

I have not overcome adversity, instead I have merely skirted it, or wallowed in it, or used it as a reason (excuse?) for my failure to build a healthy, liveable, life. I failed again, and now I’m gearing up to return to living in a city where I already failed before, and much harder than I failed here.

At least I bought some more nice clothes while I was (briefly) stable in Toronto..?

///

11.15am

It’s windy today. I’m walking to the gym to exercise and then to work for another dull-as-shit twelve hours. 

I’m running out of patience. How much is this due to the recent tiny reduction of my anti-psychotics and how much is the result of the impending move to a place I moved away from on purpose?

I’m on holiday for a fortnight in ten days, so maybe I’m already psychologically on a Mediterranean terrace, Aperol Spritz poured to the brim.

There’s not a lot of my life here in Toronto that I would like to keep. There’s nothing in London that I want to have back.

///

12.45pm

Wow, it looks like we’re somehow doing a day in the life! What a time capsule!

I’m just leaving the gym and I’m going to grab a sandwich before I take the bus into work.

In the gym I watched episode 3 of Mare of Easttown, which is great! Finally an HBO show which isn’t about very rich people! I didn’t know they could do it (yes, there are mostly poor people in The Wire, but there are rich people too, come on!).

Ambergris is by Jeff VanderMeer, the writer of the Southern Reach Trilogy, which is better known by the name of the first book in the series, Annihilation, which was made into that creepy Natalie Portman movie. Ambergris is an earlier “trilogy’, written around 15-20 years ago, and has recently been published in this massive, 900ish pages large book.

The blurb described the contents as three novels, but that isn’t true at all – it is fairer to say that it contains a couple of novellas and short stories that had previously been collected as City of Saints and Madmen (2001), followed by the actual novels Shriek: An Afterword (2006) and Finch (2009).

The book opens with what is by far the weakest piece, a fiction about a failed missionary. The missionary is returning to the centre of the empire he was out working for, arriving back to its capital, the city of Ambergris, a strange and dangerous town where the indigenous inhabitants (known as “mushroom dwellers” in this story but “grey caps” everywhere else in the book) stir up trouble annually at a festival celebrating the original colonisation of the city centuries ago. This violence-stained festival serves as the backdrop for the finale of this novella.

The missionary falls in love with a manikin and is tricked into a position where it looks like he will be sold as meat (?) to the grey caps, before he escapes into the chaos of the festival and – despite having been repeatedly told that the person he is in love with is a manikin – finally discovers that his love is a manikin and he then disappears, sad, into the night. This story feels pretty old school, with quite a few retrogressive tropes (a sinister dwarf, “unrequited love” (which is not a thing), “love at first sight” (which is not a thing), missionaries in jungles etc etc), and it only really gets going in its final chapter as the fantasy-adjacent city crumbles into violence… But everything picks up after that point – VanderMeer is rolling!

Following the opener, we move to a mock historical text written about the city from the perspective of a historian who specialises in study of the “grey caps”, and Shriek: An Afterword continues this theme and style with the text written by (not literally) the historian’s sister, after Duncan Shriek (the historian) has appeared to disappear into the spore-based world of fungi located underneath Ambergris, the habitat of the grey caps.

Before the novel-length focus on the siblings Shriek, tho, there are a few more stories/novellas set in this fictionalised city living atop a culture it tried – and failed – to destroy. The grey caps are basically able to do magic through the myriad uses of spore and fungus-based “technology”, none of which is understood by the above-ground Ambergrisians. The only one of these other stories I remember now, a week (two weeks?) later is the final piece from City of Saints and Madmen, which is a metafictional, very very 1990s piece about a novelist known as “X” who thinks he is a successful American writer who has published many pieces about a fictional city he made up called Ambergris, but is in fact a patient in an Ambergrisian psychiatric hospital. Oh, the nineties!

Once VanderMeer launches into the novels, tho, the world he has sketched as a backdrop to these shorter pieces reveals itself shiny.

Janice Shriek, the narrator of Shriek: An Afterword is an ageing former art dealer who is writing her memoirs in a dingy pub basement as she disintegrates following her brother’s disappearance and a very public shaming of his legacy by his former lover, who he groomed from early adulthood while she was a student and he was a teacher at a higher education institution. Duncan Shriek is given a pretty generous get-out-of-jail-free card from authorial (rather than narrator) tone here, which is another of the factors that date the novels… Alongside his sister’s narrative, Duncan – who is in hiding, rather than truly lost – has added a handful of annotations, one of which is a “she was twenty when we met”-type comment that is presented as if excusing the teacher from shagging the student, which ummm hello????

Ok, I’m arriving at work now (oh, how I hate it, how I can’t wait for it to be over but how I fear the future without an income, too), gotta go.

Fuck me, I’m sooooo bored of my dull little life. 

///

14.15

Doing a quick poo before I clean some toilets.

///

April 7th, 11.30am

And I’m back walking to work again.

It hurts that this is the best job I’ve ever had, yet it’s still shit. Every day I go to a beautiful building and become beshitten by the nonsense of nobodies with slightly too much money and not enough imagination to spend their time somewhere more interesting.

Every day there is increasing tension between my lover and I as this de-immigration gets closer. A return I  do not want. A step in a direction that I cannot safely make. It is not a step into the dark but a step into the dangerous light. I know what I am in danger of and I cannot pretend it isn’t real, it isn’t there.

aaaaaa,,,,,,,,,qu0qu0qu0qu0qu0qu0qu)

A danger you understand may be safer than a danger you don’t, but it’s easier to relax when you’re ignorant.

That’s what Ambergris was about, in some ways.

The second book, Shriek: An Afterword, dives into the mythologies surrounding the grey caps, and then in a (fictional) afterword to the (fictional) afterword, the Siblings Shriek’s “editor” closes the novel with a dismissal of the theories and discoveries contained in the novel, even though – in the world of the novel – they are definitely true.

VanderMeer’s reader (on this occasion, me) then flips a page into Finch and we (I) are (am) a hundred years into the future and everything Duncan Shriek had suggested/predicted about the grey caps has been proven right.

The grey caps have taken over the city and are chasing down the last remaining human rebels, with the help of broken and/or self-serving human assistants, one of whom is the titular John Finch (which is quickly revealed to be a pseudonym).

This novel is tonally and structurally reminiscent of a Chandleresque (Raymond not Bing) detective thriller, hard-boiled like an egg.

Finch is investigating a suspicious double murder on behalf of his grey cap boss, while trying to keep his sense of self-respect by not fucking over his former allies in the rebel network, even tho they had previously fucked over his (now dead) father.

There are, like in the classic, ambitious, mid-century thrillers VanderMeer is referencing, multiple rebel groups and alliances that Finch must try to understand as he looks to solve the evermore-mysterious mystery of the dead bodies, which spirals ever-deeper into the origins of the once-underground but now victorious grey cap society. It’s a lot of fun, and ties up a few loose threads from the rest of the trilogy while still leaving an echoing ambiguity that – from my experience anyway – seems to be the Jeff VanderMeer trademark (TM).

Using such a variety of styles throughout the Ambergris cycle (it is not a trilogy) must have been a great way for the young VanderMeer to practice and develop his craft at the outset of his career. Though Ambergris isn’t as harrowing and enveloping as Southern Reach – which is definitely worth a read even for the genre-sceptical like my former self – and it is overall less threatening due to the increased explication of the mysterious/sinister (the reader learns what the danger is, though not why it is), Ambergris is v engaging and kept me reasonably distracted from the real life horrors of my once-again unravelling lived reality.

Well, I’m off on holiday next week, maybe that will help! (Spoiler: it won’t!)


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