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Claude Lalumiere's Fantastic Fiction
City of Saints and Madmen

by Jeff VanderMeer

(Bantam Spectra,$14.00, 704 pages; trade paperback, published in February 2006.)

cover scanLike an invading fungus, Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen keeps spreading and metamorphosing.

City of Saints and Madmen is a metafictional exploration of the imagined city of Ambergris, a decaying, decadent metropolis where strange fungi, irascible squid, and outré books are ubiquitous.

The two central pieces are "Dradin, in Love" and "The Transformation of Martin Lake", two quietly melancholy novellas. The others are mostly "found" texts -- a startling variety of documents purportedly originating from Ambergris: tourist guides, glossaries, chapbooks, excerpts from literary journals, etc. In these, VanderMeer's weird deadpan wit is unleashed to wondrous effect.

The book first appeared in 2001 as a paperpack collection of four novellas. The following year it re-emerged as a giant hardcover with a whole other book's worth of extra material added to the subtly revised text. Subsequent editions continued to be tweaked.

Along the way, two more items were added: "The Exchange" (formerly a chapbook) and "Learning to Leave the Flesh", the first Ambergris story. Every edition has been graced with a careful attention to design: the book itself is an object in the author's metafictional games.

VanderMeer's bizarre, obsessive creation is a fascinating mosaic of interlocking texts whose meanings change as readers delve deeper into the work and layers of imagination, humour, pathos, and metafictionality are either stripped from or superimposed on texts encountered earlier in the volume.

Key is "The Strange Case of X", in which readers encounter a delusional author from the United States who claims to have created Ambergris...

Originally published, in slightly different form, in
The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, 8 April 2006.

Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction is a series of
capsule reviews first published in the Saturday Books
section of The Montreal Gazette.

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