(Golden Gryphon, $24.95, 305 pages, hardcover; published in June 2004.)
The highlight of Jeff VanderMeer's collection Secret Life is, appropriately, the title story: a wryly surreal tale mythologizing office culture to wildly imaginative extremes. At times savagely horrific, at others deliriously funny, it's a roller-coaster ride filled with fascinating characters caught in strangely resonant conflicts and situations. Much of the story's power derives from the careful descriptions and the well-measured pacing, which exude confidence and unwavering focus as VanderMeer's bizarre world unveils itself word by word, idea by idea, scene by scene.
Secret Life is a hefty collection, with 23 stories tinged with the fantastic to at least some degree. VanderMeer provides candid and often witty afterwords explaining the genesis of each text and generously exposing his writing process.
One of VanderMeer's greatest talents, as evinced in previous works such as City of Saints & Madmen and The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, is a peculiar metafictional sense of humour characterized by its acid dryness and informed by the author's broad erudition. This collection does not emphasize that aspect of his writing. Not that VanderMeer never exercises his funny bone here; "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid" is a delightfully weird and deadpan comedy.
However, the more serious tone of many items collected here isn't as convincing; stiff, lifeless characters rob a large number of tales of emotional credibility and narrative drive. Too many stories in Secret Life seem less like fully realized fictions and more like literary exercises in which emotion has been studiously avoided.
Several selections are excerpts from longer works in progress; like squid out of water, they suffer from being pulled out of their intended environment.
VanderMeer's attention to and love of language are evident throughout, but that's not enough to breathe life into Secret Life as a whole.
Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction
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© Claude Lalumière 10 July 2004, 5 December 2004