November 25th, 2006

Dear Jeff VanderMeer –

I imagine that you get a lot of letters like this: oh, I love your work! Oh, hey, I think there’s a mistake on this page. This would be exactly one of those, were I to write it and mail it to you. However, I’m sort of saving you the work of reading this by not actually sending it. It’s not like I have something earth-shattering or novel to say to you. Also, I’ve never had enough guts to actually mail an author I admire about their work. I’m not sure why this act seems so intrusive and forbidden to me. I imagine most authors, indeed most types of artists, would be delighted to hear about how great they are from someone, anyone, even a stranger. Maybe writing to someone who traffics in words is intimidating? I’m not sure, and it’s not relevant. I apologize for the introspection. It’s you I’m trying to talk about, or your words, at any rate.

I first fell in love with Ambergris when I read your story “The Cage”, in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14. What a gorgeous gem of a story. Shivery and magical and so, so strange. I was thrilled to have found the story, and thrilled to have found you. I followed that up with Secret Life which was truly an amazing book with some stunning stories in it. Some of those images are still with me.

I am now reading Shriek: an afterword. I am not sure how I feel about it yet. Ambivalent, I guess. I do like it, and I will finish it, that much I know. It does some very neat things with crosslinked narrative and editorial comment. It’s very clever, and it makes me think about writing at every sentence. One thing it doesn’t do, though, is open up the reader trance for me. I’m so conscious of reading words someone wrote, and so conscious of the altered manuscript of the story, that I cannot lose myself in any of the narrative threads. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It’s a daring thing, and an interesting thing, but it’s a hard thing to love, when absorption into books is why most avid readers read. It’s as though you’ve snuck off with my opium pipe and given me methadone instead. I’m not going to get the heebie jeebies without my fix, but man, it’s a weird, weird trip and not as euphoric as I would expect (or perhaps desire).

I don’t like Duncan or Janice at all. I’m ok with not liking them, actually. You threw me a few bones, a few people to like: Sybel, Bonmot, the mother. The only shame of it is that the character I love with all my heart, Ambergris, is made more remote by the self-absorbed siblings’ constant, facile commentary. It’s like being in a crowd where that one guy who feels like he must explain everything just will not shut up. I’ve been that guy, actually. I’ve stood behind myself going “shut up! shut up! shut up! no one cares! no one wants to know!”. But I digress. (Again. Maybe this is why I don’t write to writers. Thoughts squish out in all directions). I might wish that Duncan’s and Janice’s shrieking would mute to a dull roar, Ambergris would rise to the foreground and I would hum with happiness and marvel at the strangeness of it all. There are moments, don’t get me wrong. When she’s scraping the mushrooms off Duncan? Awesome. When father takes him on the underground tour? Riveting. The walk in the woods to the statue? Very nice. The suicide attempt is memorable as well. Lots of bits I like a great deal, but the overall structure creates this cordon of writing, this space, between me and what I really want to get to. So…ambivalence.

There’s one thing which I really love, and that’s how the natives of Ambergris characterize themselves. This is too rare in fantasy, though China Mieville does it well also (and, of course, Borges). In this world, people who consider themselves of a (large enough) city often assign themselves qualities that they perceive all natives of that city have. The city has a character, and its character rubs off on them, or they act as though it does. I think this reflects tribe and human nature, and when I don’t see it in fiction, it bugs me. All the lines stereotyping Ambergrisians make me smile. It’s like something Londoners would say, or New Yorkers, or Portenos.

So because I’m so conscious as I read of the writing of the work, and the layers and fictions overlapping the writing of the work, I’m following every word. You’re getting quite a close reading, and I hope a faithful reading, not a good parts reading (being blocked from the trance keeps me from building a good parts version, I think). Here’s my question: on page 95 of the Tor first edition hardback, there’s a paragraph that begins “Back then, he was a mischievous sprout…” Following? Good, well in that paragraph the line “his bright green eyes sometimes seemed too large for his face” appears twice. At first (I have such faith, see), I thought you did that on purpose. That you were going to start increasingly repeating lines at various intervals, to make some point about circularity or Janice’s complete mental dissolution. But then, it didn’t seem to happen again. So, was it just a mistake? One of those human kinds of mistakes? My second question is about the machine in the underground sequence. See, I checked Secret Life out of the library, so I don’t have it handy, but that sequence…seems repeated. Is it? Did you just rip it out of Secret Life and re-purpose it for Shriek: an afterword? It’s not a problem, or anything, but I was a bit surprised to see it again. When you wrote it, did you have Duncan in your head as the narrator, or did you discover that later? Was it just love for that bit of prose that made you use it again? Also, not a big deal, but I can’t help wondering if the afterword is this extensive, how long exactly is the book? Must be some kind of crazy huge tome.

Oh, one more thing. This line: “And let you, O Lord, serve as a light to him, for we are imperfect vessels and we platitude simile extended metaphor with barely any pauses followed by more repetition. Period.” is so near perfect I wanted to make someone else read it. That whole paragraph is deliriously funny and incisive, actually, but I wouldn’t want to abuse fair use by too extensive a quote. Thanks for writing it, and all the other words, too.



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