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Shriek: an afterword

by Jeff VanderMeer

(Tor, £10.99, 366 pages, paperback, published 2006.)

Review by Keith Brooke

Jcover scaneff VanderMeer's a smart-arse of a writer. Full of clever tricks -- from the in-your-faceness of the encrypted story and the story-in-a-bibliography in City of Saints and Madmen and the heavily footnoted brilliance of The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek to the masterful manipulation of perception that permeates almost everything he writes -- it's easy to lazily put him down as a tricksy beast and move on. But we shouldn't allow ourselves to be distracted: VanderMeer is, quite simply, one of the finest writers of genre fiction currently operating, and Shriek: an afterword is one of the best novels I've read in recent years.

This is Janice Shriek's version of events, a kind-of afterword to her brother's Early History, a kind-of recent history of the city Ambergris itself, a kind-of biography of her brother, a kind-of autobiography, and most certainly a kind-of therapy. The story maps out the various disappearances and reappearances of Duncan, his rise to fame and infamy, his fall, his doomed love for the revisionist historian Mary Sabon, the war that descends on their adopted city, and, above all, the ever-present threat of the mysterious gray caps, who periodically emerge from their underground retreat to cause mayhem. With mushrooms.

The storytelling here is deliciously devious: VanderMeer likes nothing more than to tease his readers with slivers of story and then step back, step sideways, take a fresh look and head off in another direction altogether. Janice sets out with a promise that she won't try to match Duncan's tendency to digress, to leave threads dangling ... and then she repeatedly starts her account afresh, struggling to find the appropriate starting point, so that in some ways the whole book is about trying to find the right way in, in order to find a way out again.

It's devious, also, because not only do we have an unreliable narrator, we have two. The story is Janice's: we learn that she has been sitting down in a fungal-spore-ridden backroom in a bar, by a crudely boarded-over entrance to the gray caps' underground. But the manuscript has been found by her brother, and annotated by him, so that we get his alternative interpretation -- and memory -- of events, his sharp comments and digs, his carefully-worded elisions where he reveals that he knows more than he will ever deign to tell us. Somewhere between these two viewpoints is the real story of what went on as the gray caps started to reassert themselves in Ambergris.

But I'm allowing myself to be distracted... The telling of Shriek is quite unlike anything I've read, but put that aside for now, and just look at the basics.

One of the most powerfully distinctive things Jeff VanderMeer does is to create such a strong sense of the world beyond the page, the story beyond the book. The two "authors" of this work are writing for their fellow citizens, taking a shared cultural knowledge for granted. Things are mentioned in passing, glossed over, ricocheted off, because they're not of this story. In lesser hands this would lead to an irritatingly oblique narrative, but not here, not this author.

The characters here are brilliant: the fragile siren Sabon; the wonderfully engaging and ultimately uncertain priest Bonmot, who liked it better when he knew everything; but above all the brother-sister double-act of Duncan and Janice: so similar, so opposite. Echoingly close when they'd never admit it, jarringly contrasting when they might claim fellow-feeling. When it comes down to it, Shriek is an intense, intimate study of sometimes estranged, sometimes close siblings, each plummeting the depths, scaling the heights, and above all transforming.

And the language: masterful use of tense and voice; never a word out of place; choice of phrase working overtime, to pile subtle effect on subtle effect.

There are some -- few -- writers who put other writers off with the quality of their prose; and some who inspire, for the very same reason. I still haven't put my finger on why this should be, what distinguishes one class of brilliant writer from the other. With Shriek, Jeff VanderMeer has occupied an area somewhere between these two camps, at once inspirational (I want to use words as he does, I want to find startlingly insightful ways to do character and story) and dauntingly off-putting (he has what I simply don't...). The bastard.

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