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Why Should I Cut Your Throat? Excursions into the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

by Jeff VanderMeer

(MonkeyBrain Books, $15.95, 329 pages, paperback, published October 2004.)

Review by Keith Brooke

Why Should I Cut Your Throat?A bit of a mixed bag this, but a bag which most certainly repays careful exploration.

Mixed? Well, quite literally it is so: convention reports, reviews, appreciations, longer studies of writers' oeuvres ... the types of non-fiction contained in this volume vary widely, and the tone veers from the footnotedly serious-minded to the conversationally amusing. Such diversity is no bad thing -- in fact it quite neatly echoes VanderMeer's own fiction, with his ability to juxtapose the serious with the funny and the seriously strange within the covers of a single volume (hell, often he manages that within a single sentence). But whereas with his fiction these juxtapositions are quite deliberate, the variety here, in a volume spanning ten or so years of VanderMeer's non-fiction, seems more of a chance thing than a planned one. But then, that's the nature of the beast.

The cumulative effect of these fragments is to expand on the second essay in this collection, "Rum Runners, Tiny Castles, and Allergies" -- more tellingly subtitled "A Profile of the Writer at Twenty-Eight" -- building up a higgledy-piggledy mosaic-portrait, a patchwork autobiography of the writer as he is, and has been.

So who is the person this book indirectly autobiographises?

He was a sickly child who could never take as active a part as he would have liked in the world around him. And what a world! This kid lived in Fiji and Peru, he travelled around the world not once but twice. For him, as he became a man, a writer, to write about what you know, as unimaginative writing teachers always tell us, was to write about the strange, the exotic, the Other.

Also, he's a writer -- like the best of writers, the best of people -- who has clung onto that childish quest to understand, to ask awkward questions of the world: what? where? why?

And he is a man in love with language, a reader for whom a story is as much the words that tell it as the it the words tell, and a writer who always pushes himself to live up to that take on literature. Yes, I'm a fan, and, in its scattergun, tangential way, Why Should I Cut Your Throat? has brought me closer to a fine, fine writer.

Perhaps those opening two paragraphs of this review do VanderMeer an injustice: perhaps he planned this cumulative effect all along.

I'm not generally taken with the idea of collecting reviews for posterity. I read reviews of books I've already read, or of books I might eventually read (although with caution -- I want to discover the books myself, not through the eyes of another), and often I'll read reviews of books I'm unlikely to read. But usually I wouldn't buy a book of reviews, so their inclusion here is, for me, more a completist gesture rather than a part of the book I had really looked forward to.

They slot in well enough, though, and they do play a significant part in building up that mosaic biography of the author. They do this in obvious ways: we see what he likes and dislikes. They also serve to illustrate, yet again, his incisive knack for observation and encapsulation. His summing up of Steve Aylett (in a review I commissioned for an issue of Interzone I co-guest-edited) remains one of my favourite one-liners (well, a two-liner, in this case):

The knock on Steve Aylett, when there's been one, is that he's too clever for his own good. After reading Aylett's new story collection, Toxicology, I wish more writers were too clever for their own good -- it sure beats being lumped in with all those other writers who are too stupid for their own good.

The reviews also reveal an endearing naivety. VanderMeer the reviewer can be sadistically entertaining, as in his review of the Jesus issue of Pulphouse (you made that one up, didn't you, Jeff?) and when he expresses his admiration for Martin Scott's Thraxas in such terms as: "The unrelentingly dull prose, full of cliches and unimaginative puns, grates against a poorly conceived setting and a convoluted but boring plot." Oh come on, man: stop sitting on the fence! In short, he tells it how he sees it, which in a world with far too many cozy, I'll-scratch-your-back-just-in-case-mine-ever-needs-it reviews is so depressingly often just Not How We Do Things. The naivety? This comes through in the sheer innocent dismay that such trenchantly expressed views might ever generate hostility among the Establishment. There's so much here that is refreshing, and so much that is depressing in what it reveals about how publishing can operate.

The essay about the writing and publishing history of City of Saints and Madmen is the story of how a fictional creation comes to life, and it also serves to illustrate how close creativity can be to madness: imagine an accountant saying that the object of his work existed in a separate reality and he was just channeling it... Not to mention the compulsive lengths VanderMeer went to when encrypting a story for the appendix of the book.

The City of Saints essay should be required reading on all creative writing courses, both for what it tells us about the publishing world and as an illustration of the dangers writing poses to one's mental health. Do you really want to go through all this in the pursuit of your art?

The essays and trip reports are, for me, the heart and soul of this collection, and they contain some telling observations. In his postscript to the profile of the Leviathan series, VanderMeer articulates something that I've always felt as a reader: I'd far rather read (or in JV's case here, publish, as he's writing this essay in his capacity as editor) something that says something to me, even if I don't understand what it is that it's actually saying. Sometimes a story is just right. Far better that than a story where the mechanics work but there's no soul.

Indeed, this is often my reaction to Jeff VanderMeer's fiction: he's one of my favourite current authors, but I'm nearly always aware that there's more going on than I'm really grasping. And I like that. I like it a lot.

There's far more going on in this non-fiction collection than I've picked up on here, too, and I liked it.

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