November 28th, 2006

Shriek: an afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. (best guess 25) [specfic]. Janice Shriek’s melodramatic afterword to Duncan’s 600 plus page history of Ambergris, with additions by Duncan and edited by Sirin. I liked this book. I babbled about it in an open letter to JV here before I’d finished it. Now, that I’ve finished it, I’m pretty pleased. He totally nailed the ending. I finished it on 11/28/05.

A few lingering thoughts about Shriek: an afterword and about Jeff VanderMeer’s response to my letter (That response, astonishingly, came more quickly than it would have had I stamped and mailed the letter! So much for my corner of the internet being seekrit, veiled by its relative obscurity. Though I guess I don’t have to be afraid of writing to writers anymore. From my sample set of one, anyway, they do not bite when you write to them. Best not to write to evil monkeys, though.)

First, the book. I shall try to put this into words, but I don’t know if I will succeed. The book itself, end to end, smacks down the polite fiction that novels are acts of communication. We like to think, as readers, that we are entering a doorway (doors, mirrors, windows everywhere in this work, btw) into a world the author created for us. Reality (I think and perhaps the author suggests so in this book – I certainly read it that way) is more like we build our own world, borrowing words the author has conveniently placed before us. But there’s possibly no real contact there. The incidents are isolated from one another. The act of creation, the act of receiving the creation work in parallel: never touching. I think this is a revolutionary concept, especially amidst all this talk of the writer/reader contract. I think one of the highest functions of art is to be contercultural, and I think this book is that on top of everything else it is (well-written, interesting, enjoyable, harrowing). The fiction of connection may arise, in part, from the reader trance I was talking about earlier. We go to a place not of our own making, therefore we assume it is the place of the author’s making. But VanderMeer denies there is such a place at all. There are only words, and the page, and either the writer alone with the words, or the reader alone with the words. That is all. Surprisingly, and cleverly, he denies the place by keeping you from it, using the very machine that would normally take you there. He may have said, “You will not get lost in this story, despite how well-told it is. I will not let you. I will remind you at every paragraph of its existence as story, an artifice.” My analysis, of course, is based on my reading, my own little castle I built with the words I was given. Is it what he meant? A part of what he meant? Not at all what he meant? I have no idea. Nor is it possible for me to ever know given only the work. In fact, my thoughts are largely so much interpretative chaff, but the book invites that, at the same time as it mocks it. There’s perhaps no absolute truth, only little truths, strung together on this thin wire of text. There’s no connection, but you will receive this message through a connection. A paradox. This book is bending my brain. Maybe in the end I will love it after all, though I said I wouldn’t.

Second, Jeff (is that too forward?) referred to the error on page 95 as something that occurred as he was adjusting “the mix” of the story. The long list of bands at the back of Shriek implies a strong connection between music and writing in VanderMeer’s work. My husband is a musician and a sound engineer so we often have these long rambling conversations about how making music is and is not like writing. We had a conversation just last week in which I was discussing writing to formula. It appears to be an easy way to make money, with a reliable repeatable product, but I can’t do that. If you give me a formula, I have to mess with it. He explained to me that it was a common requirement in studio training that an engineer precisely duplicate an existing recording. “There’s no other way,” he said,”to be sure that the sounds in your head are the sounds you’ve recorded except by exact duplication of a sound you’ve heard, then internalized.” Of course in writing, exact duplication is merely copying the words, so without involving your brain, it can hardly be expected to help your skills. Still, how much of writing is described by writers as trying to duplicate outside what goes on inside? A lot, it seems to me. And what sorts of tools or exercises might we use to get there? And how would we know when we’d gotten the notes right, unless there was some way to record it, to play it back? Seems like there’s something there that could be useful, if only I could figure it out. Somehow, VanderMeer is already thinking along those lines, already there. He’s fading some sounds and bringing out others. He’s adjusting lines for effect. He’s switching the solos around until it’s perfect. I want that level of control over my prose. I want to have my hand on the slider bar instead of just pushing out words one after another and hoping they’re in tune. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I’ve still got my shoulder to the boulder, stepping up the hill.

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