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Posted by Matt | August 20th, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch. Underland Press, 2009 (US); Corvus, 2010 (UK).

There has always been an awareness of the sequence of history in Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction, an understanding that for any given place and time there will have been someone there before and will be someone there after. An early series of short stories dealt with this explicitly: “Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac” (1989, expanded 2000), “The Emperor’s Reply” (1993), and “The Compass of His Bones” (2004) were tales of the end of the Inca empire at the hands of Spanish Conquistadors. Veniss Underground (2003), a novel, derived much of its pervasive low-level dread from the uplifted meerkats who saw themselves as the next evolutionary step up from humanity, the heirs of the world in waiting. And most notably, historicity is deeply ingrained in VanderMeer’s best-known fiction, his Ambergris cycle. “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris” in the City of Saints and Madmen mosaic novel (2001, expanded 2002, further expanded UK 2004, revised US 2006) established the basics: the seizure of the strange city of Cinsorium on the River Moth by a band of whaler-pirates fleeing from an empire’s collapse; the driving underground of the city’s mysterious inhabitants, the gray caps, by the new settlers; the razing of the old city and its reconstruction as Ambergris; the subsequent territorial battles with neighboring tribes and nation-states in its rise as a center of art and commerce. The cycle’s second volume, Shriek: An Afterword (2006), conveys more subtly by its very title that this is a tale that follows another story; the book’s narrative conceit is that one character, the historian Duncan Shriek, is making notes and commentary over a core text written by Duncan’s sister Janice as an {auto}biographical afterword to one of Duncan’s own historical works.

And so we come to Finch, the third and perhaps final book of the Ambergris cycle. We’re a hundred years after Shriek, and Ambergris is a blitzed mockery of its former decadence. The gray caps have risen, long preparation during their exile in the city’s cavernous underground resulting in a swift takeover of the surface. Most humans in the city now live a shell-shocked existence, ameliorated by hallucinogenic mushrooms provided by the gray caps that remind the inhabitants of better times. Rebels exist outside the city, but are under constant threat of discovery and banishment to work camps–or more mysterious forms of disappearance. And a few humans hover in-between, trying to find meaning in a world turned downside-up. Among them is the titular John Finch, one of the pool of human police that the largely-nocturnal gray caps rely on for daytime legwork in criminal investigations.

Finch-the-character is the first of several areas where Finch-the-novel shines. There’s the natural tendency to see Finch as a traitor to his species, a collaborator. The book as a whole serves as an irreducible response to this first impression, an answer to the question of why he is working for the gray caps. As Finch conducts his investigation into a dead human and a bisected gray cap who seem to have materialized together in a deserted apartment as though fallen from a great height, the case more and more requires Finch to revisit his past and the reasons for his present situation. What VanderMeer does effectively over the course of the novel is develop our understanding of Finch as someone trapped by both personal history and cultural zeitgeist, a decent enough man doing the best he can in a world without clear-cut answers. He’s somewhat akin, on the surface level at least, to a hardboiled version of Gene Wolfe’s Severian the Torturer, engaged in a quest to fight a future that he does not fully comprehend at the behest of those whose agenda he does not fully know.

Which is to say, while guns and blood (and other fluids) are involved–copiously–in the tale, Finch is no action hero, and Finch is no fantasy of political agency. While there is plenty of action, it’s generally taken at the behest of the either the gray caps or one or another group of rebels. Finch is a character, to suggest another unlikely but I think useful comparison, in the vein of Yeine Darr from N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: someone in an environment of complex constraints, physical and cultural, whose actions must be parsed in light of these constraints. What does it mean to live in occupied territory, to have one’s life (and even body) colonized? It’s a question that runs through the novel. Finch, mind you, is by no means perfect in this regard–that is, he’s very human. But he’s someone VanderMeer invites us to consider on several different axes: what is his hierarchy of loyalties to family, loves, friends, and city; how sympathetic is Finch; how likable is he; how worthy is he of respect?

VanderMeer is among the most versatile contemporary shapers of narrative, combining a sense of the right story to tell for any given place and time, with a willingness to experiment–and borrow from the best–in determining the right narrative style for that story. So it’s no surprise that another highlight of Finch is the manner in which this shattered tale is told. We are deep in hardboiled crime territory here, echoes of the staccato, “telegraphic” neo-noir of James Ellroy:

[Finch] shouldn’t even have been on this case. [...] Never do police work anywhere near your own area. Never let the people where you lived know your job. And yet, 239 Manzikert Avenue was only a mile from the hotel [where he lived]. Why had Heretic put him in charge? Didn’t trust Wyte anymore? Or was there some other reason? Leaned forward in his chair. Had to make some progess.

This fragmented prose isn’t an affectation: the noir stylings carry with them a host of characteristics and connotations that perform important work for VanderMeer. The chopped up sentences continue to emphasize that idea of sequence: it’s almost always one distinct, singular action or perception following another. There’s an individualistic quality and an immediacy to this style, the sensation that we’re experiencing the story at street level through Finch’s eyes, with no narrative pauses to see what comes next and then report back later in more complex sentences. It emphasizes that Finch is on his own, and is quite different from the narratives of previous Ambergris novels that were layered in time and voice. At the same time, VanderMeer often uses Finch’s sentence fragments to break the narrative chain of causation, to separate the actions of characters from their results–which all conveys something of the dissociative mood and mindset of the citizenry of Ambergris. The Ambergrisians have experienced events they do not understand, whose cause and ultimate results are unknown to them. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the rules of the world have been broken, and the broken grammar reflects the sense of uncanny dread that results. But this is also a textbook example of the dissociation of torture, which becomes clear when the story moves to a scene of torture and the style does not change.

Couldn’t feel his feet or hands. A kind of mercy. Because early on the Partial had cut off one of Finch’s toes. Had busted up his knee again. Cut a slit in his right cheek that bled into his mouth.

“Confess,” the Partial kept saying. “Confess.”

[...]

Finch laughed. An unhinged laugh that ended on too high a note. [...] The Partial crept behind him. Felt a soft sawing around his numb hand. A sudden flowing release. [...] The Partial placed Finch’s bloody pinkie finger on the table. It looked like a white worm.

Indeed, as we realize that the whole novel is interspersed with a recording of this interrogation and torture of Finch, the prose style becomes that much more appropriate. If the textbook definition of a sentence is a completed thought, VanderMeer’s noir-serrated writing conveys a populace–and a character–unwilling to complete a thought for fear of what that thought might be, what it might confess.

As I noted when discussing China Miéville’s The City & The City, however, VanderMeer’s noir takes a somewhat different shape and is put to a very different use than most of the other fantasy-crime hybrids published in recent years–Miéville’s novel, Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živkovic’s The Last Book. These other works adopted noir as a retro-styling, a conception of the world-as-failure dating from the era between the World Wars that, the implicit message is, we’ve never quite been able to overcome. The classic noir they reference was an outgrowth of industrialization and urbanization, combined with subsequent economic downturn, combined with the lesson of Prohibition that trying to legislate morality only makes everyone a criminal. This original noir was an expression of dazed despair over the failure of our dreams, at a world we had created and then seemed to become stuck in. VanderMeer’s noir feels more modern, millennial. His achievement with Finch is to recreate urban noir based on contemporary concepts of post-colonial religious and ethnic conflict, drug culture, the panoptic state, and the post-9/11 (mis)understanding of the world not as something we helped bring about, but as something done to us. Common contemporary fears are more organic than technological–chemical and biological weaponry, disease like swine and bird flu, ecological issues like global warming–or more based in ideology: underground cells rising to unleash horrors, the intersection of terrorism and Lovecraft. Meanwhile, the questions of the day surround a Western world awakened to its colonialist past and now wondering how we would have reacted if what we did to others had been done to us, how then to co-exist with those whose worldview seems truly alien–and so the uncertain tenuousness of hope, of relying on unproven, unprovable narratives that communication, understanding, and living together might be possible; wondering how much miscommunication and conflict are inevitable. Finch reads as if VanderMeer took all these key components of contemporary politics, scrambled the subjects and actions and objects beyond allegorical recognition, laid them out in their new form as a series of fragments very much akin to the novel’s prose, and seeing that they still made sense in their scrambled form and still told a believable story, challenged the reader to decide for themselves what exactly this means.

Finch can nominally be read as a stand-alone story, but it seems important to me to read it as part of the whole Ambergris cycle for reasons not least that it is only in the previous volumes that the falsity of the impression of current circumstances as something done to the Ambergrisians is fully revealed. And a key reason to read the cycle in order–beyond an appreciation for how much groundwork was laid early on, and a greater understanding of various characters, historical events, and mysteries solved and unsolved–is to experience the visceral transformation of the city that VanderMeer has wrought. For as the prose style is different in Finch than in VanderMeer’s previous Ambergris novels, so too the city of Ambergris has been transformed.

Six years and I can’t recognize a goddamn thing from before.

Harsh blue sprawl of the bay, bled from the River Moth. Carved from nothing. The first thing the gray caps did when they Rose, flooding Ambergris and killing thousands. Now the city, riddled through with canals, is like a body that was once drowned. Parts bleached, parts bloated. Metal and stone for flesh. Places that stick out and places that barely touch the surface.

[...]

Beyond the Spit, the silhouette of the two living domes covering the detention camps. Broken by the smoke, hidden by debris. Built over a valley of homes. Built atop the remains of the military factories that had allowed the two great mercantile companies, House Hoegbotton and the invading House Frankwrithe & Lewden, to dream of empire, to destroy each other. And the city with them. Finch had fought for Hoegbotton. Once upon a time.

Between the domes, the fiery green glitter and minarets of the Religious Quarter, occupied by the remnants of native tribes. Adapting. Struggling. Destined to someday be wiped out. He can see the exposed crater at the top of the Truffidian Cathedral. Cracked. All the prayers let out.

We’re again seeing the march of history in VanderMeer’s work, transformation and change. What the quote above also illustrates is how Finch ramps up the intensity across a wide spectrum of urban life: political-economic, military-industrial, racial, spiritual, science fictional. Many horror-tinged works rely on keeping their horror concealed, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. When the horror is finally revealed, its very corporeality can render it trivial compared to what we imagined. But because Finch distributes its alienation across so many spheres of life, the changes the gray caps have wrought feel unrelenting and powerful.

Here it is also useful to stop talking about thematics and give appreciation for the breadth of visceral, sensorial imagination on display: fungal memory bulbs that extract the last memories of the deceased and replay them when consumed by the living; the gray cap’s pet skery, which seems like a small domesticated black hole; Partials, humans converted by gray caps into walking organic surveillance cameras; and innumerable other uses for mushrooms, spores, and mold. My favorite may be the method by which the underground gray caps communicate with their above-ground human assistants:

A soft, wet, sucking sound came from the memory hole beside his desk. Finch shuddered, put aside his notes.

[...]

Exhaled sharply. Peered around the left edge of the desk. Glanced down at the glistening hole. It was about twice the size of a man’s fist. Lamprey-like teeth. Gasping, pink-tinged maw. Foul. The green tendrils lining the gullet had pushed up the dirty black spherical pod until it lay atop the mouth.

[...]

Finch leaned over. Grabbed the pod. Slimy feel. Sticky.

Tossed the pod onto his desk. Pulled out a hammer from the same drawer where he kept his limited supply of dormant pods. Split Heretic’s pod wide open.

[...]

In amongst the fragments: a few copies of a photograph of the dead man, compliments of the Partial.

And a message.

In this vein, it is also worth mentioning VanderMeer’s rare accomplishment in giving us fully-realized iterations of a fantasy setting at such different times and in such different conditions. It speaks to the excellence of Ambergris as a venue for possibility, a setting open to story–as opposed to many fantasy worlds that seem to exist, as critic Gary K. Wolfe has noted, only to tell a single intended story. It’s one of the good aspects of Tolkien that the Tolkien clone factory always forgets (or like Peter Jackson, can’t bear) to steal. Among recent fantasy, Daniel Abraham takes this long view somewhat in his Long Price quartet; Martha Wells does it, too, in her Ile Rien novels, which begin in a fairly stock medieval setting, progress through the dwindling of magic and beginnings of an industrial age, and ends with her city under siege much like the London Blitz–which makes me wonder what it is about the WWII era that makes it so often a terminal point that fantasy cannot pass through; perhaps it’s the time when it becomes impossible for fantasy to progress any further and still be fantasy.

The few issues I had with Finch were when the imaginative and thematic thrusts seemed to get in each other’s way, where it feels like VanderMeer is trying too hard to enforce a certain reading of the text. “Everyone’s a collaborator. Everyone’s a rebel” is a hard-hitting line to hit readers with on the first page, but its somewhat random insertion on later consideration comes to feel forced; so too does a later line about Finch being a good man in impossible times.

Similarly: roles, the peril of becoming the roles we act out, and our tendency to be fooled by the appearances of roles are concerns throughout the Ambergris cycle. This is true in terms of jobs, in terms of the humanity or inhumanity of the gray caps, and it is true in terms of nearly all of the series’s female characters. From the short story “Dradin, in Love,” in which a newcomer to Ambergris falls in love with a woman seen only through a window, to the triangle in Shriek: An Afterword between Duncan Shriek, his sister Janice, and his lover Mary Sabon, the alientating quality of the male gaze, the difficulty men have of seeing women as individuals (and vice versa) is a recurring pattern. Finch’s lover Sintra is fully a piece with this pattern; what feels conflicted here is when the imagination displayed by the rest of the novel meets the fact that there’s not a word Sintra utters that she didn’t learn in Femme Fatale 101. While VanderMeer isn’t unaware of this and allows Sintra a biting last say, her character is too undeveloped for this to bite as much as it should–instead it is again rather over-blunt and forced, important thematically but dull on a sentence-by-sentence level in a way that the rest of the novel is not. It would be nice to give Sintra the benefit of the doubt as a complex character, to see her as someone who perhaps bought into her assigned role too much and started to become it in her own mind, or used it to justify her actions–I’m not sure her criticism of how Finch saw their relationship was warranted, for example–but she’s too thin a character, her interactions with Finch too limited, to make that reading supportable. This is all exacerbated because the novel’s other female character [edit, see comments: who Finch has any normal interactions with], Finch’s neighbor Rathven, is likewise potentially interesting but never becomes more than a device to keep the story moving.

Of course the inevitability of the story moving forward is, in a sense, what Finch is all about. We return again to VanderMeer’s use of noir. Classic noir tells a tale of entrapment in a cycle of behavior, a fly quixotically bumping against the cage of a screened door, yearning for the unreachable outdoors beyond. Finch suggests that sometimes the door can open–sometimes as the result of our actions, sometimes through the actions of those we choose to act for us, sometimes because of historical pressures we may not always fully understand, or be comfortable with. But openings happen, and they bring change. We cannot change the massive past accumulation of history, but we can choose who we are as individuals in the present: it’s perhaps the only way individuals can interact with the mass of history, ignoring it but at the same time shaping it. In this Finch reads like a plea for engagement with the world.

And it is with this understanding that the dual components of the novel’s conclusion form a perfect summation of all that has gone before, in Finch and in VanderMeer’s Ambergris cycle overall. As the text of Finch is framed by an interrogation, so the novel ends with, quite explicitly, a confession. Yet this has the quality of a religious, or at least spiritual, confession: a true and honest communication between two people that is freely offered and cleansing, rather than the forced result of torture. And this is interesting because the other half of the book’s conclusion is one that has been deployed frequently by more explicitly religious fantasies. There is a leave-taking by boat. There is a sense that, for better or worse, a choice has been made, that history has advanced and some measure of possibility removed from the world. And there is an awareness of the inevitability of this, of change; that history never ends–in the world of fiction at least–and so every ending is really just a new chance to take part in the always-contentious shared decision of what happens next.