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Jeff VanderMeer
Shriek: An Afterword
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Tor / Tom Doherty Books
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-765-31465-7
352 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 08-08-2006
Date Reviewed: 11-29-06

Index: Fantasy  General Fiction  Horror Science Fiction

For most people, Jeff VanderMeer's transcendent novel 'Shriek: An Afterword' is but a single novel. A complicated novel, to be sure, an intricate and gorgeously written surreal fantasy, but, in the end, a single set of covers and pages. Alas, I can't pretend to have the same relationship to this book as most readers. I've lived through and read through portions of multiple versions of 'Shriek'. I've read electronic texts on ghostly flickering screens in the pre-dawn blackness while my soul withered and died. I've sat on my back porch in the warm afternoon sun and read limited printings with arcane covers and now-obsolete texts, phantoms of real books that looked perfectly real. I've read trade paperback originals from the United Kingdom, and finally, a legitimate first-edition hardcover from Tor, the mammoth god of all science fiction publishing, who doth handeth tablets down from above and raineth crap down from below. Imagine a deck of cards, each card a page from a book. Now imagine several decks of cards, each subtly different from one another, each rather the same in their intent to undermine my reality, to subsume my reality with another, fruitier, richer, weirder reality. Now shuffle them while sipping a beer in the frigid chill of a sunny winter afternoon. Now try to describe a single deck of cards. Watch the sun set, the shadows lengthen. It's getting cold. The world is dying.

Somehow, even through all the permutations of reading 'Shriek', it feels as if I've actually managed to create a reading experience that is not, in the end so dissimilar as that of the reader who sees the book on the shelf, plucks it and sits down to read it through and through. 'Shriek' is, after all, by no means a linear reading experience. This is not to say that it is particularly convoluted, or even overly complex. Indeed, given the level of odd, it is rather straightforward. But it's a shift sort of straightforward, the kind that glides together easily in one configuration then, when you shift your glance for a moment, re-arranges itself into something equally probable, fairly similar but somehow, significantly different. This is a book that re-invents itself every time you think about it.

Now, I've got to admit that not everyone has lived with the book as have I, so there are matters of import to attend to. The perquisite plot summary, for example. I mean, it's not as if the whole world knew about the book, though the whole world deserves to. But we can add that to the very long list of things this world deserves and move on. 'Shriek' is set in the city of Ambergris, which is not the sort of statement that would normally count as plot summary. But here it is indeed a big chunk of plot. VanderMeer long ago created the first corners and alleys and gallows and attics of Ambergris in a series of short stories and just plain text weird-outs that were lovingly assembled into the "mosaic novel", 'City of Saints and Madmen'. He's apparently spent as much time in Ambergris as he has in the city where he is physically located, which shall remain Nameless. (For his or its protection? You decide!)

Ambergris is clearly a city of the fantastic, though it is also quite clearly nothing like most other cities associated with the genre of fantasy. It's urban, ghettoish, crowded, but underneath live the Grey Caps, an exiled race driven out by the humans. In the past of Ambergris lies a secret, a disaster, which is rarely spoken of. And in the present of Ambergris, a brother and sister, Duncan and Janice Shriek find themselves at the heart of political and artistic chaos. There's a war brewing both within the family and within the city. Petty minds and driven manias collide in streets haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes. The telephone invades a kingdom beset by mushroom people. Riots and crowds clash, those we love are stuck down, those we hate are brought to power and then back down again.

It's simply the surreal slice of the cards, the effect of VanderMeer's extremely well rendered narrative experiment. Because yes, readers, before you ever realize it you’re reading experimental literature. It might not seem as such, because VanderMeer has made the usually complicated rendering of multiple unreliable narrators clearer than anyone might ever have thought it could be. Janice Shriek tells the tale in stops and starts, in overlapping layers that coincidentally (!?) mirror my kaleidoscopic reading experience. Duncan Shriek comments upon it. Both lie, both tell the truth as they know it, and the reader knows that none of it is true or even could be. Ambergris does not exist except in the mind of Jeff VanderMeer.

But that's not true at all. As you read 'Shriek', it comes to life in your mind, Ambergris becomes your city and the stories, the truths and lies of 'Shriek' belong to you. You may not like all these truths and lies, but they sure as hell will grip you and keep you weaving through the words. The shuffled deck of cards that is this novel, that is my reading experience of multiple visions and versions of this novel shall do no less than build themselves around you into a house of cards. But this is a sly structure, that may fly apart and yet fly right back together again surrounding you in the here-and-now to remind you of the there-and-then. You might start to experience your own life as told by multiple unreliable narrators. In fact you might quickly come to realize that the whole damn world around you is nothing but a series of spewing unreliable narrators, each telling a tale that is part war, part art, part truth and part lies. That grotty episode you had in the alley behind the bar? Was that you or Duncan? Was that alley in Ambergris or Atlanta? You might never know and it certainly will not matter. Shuffle the cards. Life will deal up another hand. Play it.

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