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review: shriek: an afterword

It has been difficult for me to even start this review of Jeff VanderMeer's remarkable new novel. I first read Shriek: An Afterword more than two years ago in manuscript format as one of the author's first readers for the book. I offered critique and gave my opinions of the novel, some of which were taken to heart, and others that weren't. Since then, 25,000 words were added and another 20,000 were heavily revised. The version on bookstore shelves right now is significantly expanded and improved from the manuscript I critiqued, although the heart of the novel remains the same.

All writers wear their influences on their sleeves, and an entire academic paper could be written about Edward Whittemore's novel Quin's Shanghai Circus infiltrating Veniss Underground, or how Angela Carter's approach to surrealistic fiction is imbued in the pages of City of Saints and Madmen. The only particular mention I'll make here is the stylistic technique VanderMeer uses in Shriek, the use of the double narrator that Vladimir Nabokov employed in his novel Ada. Shriek: An Afterword is a memoir written by former art gallery owner Janice Shriek, a memoir started as an afterword to The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, which was penned by her cranky historian brother Duncan, and which appeared in City of Saints and Madmen. Further confusing the issue are Duncan's parenthetical notes in Janice's manuscript: his corrections, differing interpretations, or refutations of Janice's account of things.

Those expecting Shriek: An Afterword to be a direct sequel to City of Saints will be disappointed. Though VanderMeer uses Duncan's Nabokovian parenthetical secondary narration, the story itself is told in a fairly traditional manner. And this is a good thing. The experimentation VanderMeer employed in his previous work would not have held up for a novel over 100,000 words. The wordplay would have gotten in the way of the longer continuous story, a distraction more than anything.

The novel is also more mainstream than VanderMeer's other works, and will hopefully reach a larger audience for his fiction.

Okay, I'm getting off track. Let me start again.

Shriek: An Afterword is the family saga of siblings Janice and Duncan Shriek, from a young age, when their father died of an overdose of joy, to sometime in their later years, when they have lived full lives and are just trying to get by. The story is also about Mary Sabon, Duncan's former history student and lover, who has made it her mission in life to discredit and disavow all of Duncan's academic work. Also included are Janice's erstwhile assistant, the tree-climbing Sybel; the editor Sirin (which is also Nabokov's pen name) who works for Hoegbotton & Sons' publishing division; Bonmot, the Vice Royal of Blythe Academy and Duncan's employer and friend; as well as a welter of artists, thieves, religious figures, and others that populate VanderMeer's unique city-state of Ambergris.

But that's not quite right either.

The novel is about a lasting impossible love, a love that consumes, even after the lover is gone. It is about the gray caps, those mysterious subterranean denizens of Ambergris' underground, and their machinations for the city above. It is about a catastrophic war between the merchant houses of Hoegbotton & Sons and Frankwrithe & Lewden, an unconventional war using fungal technology that can destroy buildings, and people, from the inside out. It is about surviving an inevitable shift to something else, something new. It is about 360 pages long.

I am personally very excited that Shriek: An Afterword is now out and available from major publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. It took VanderMeer almost a decade to write, and is his most accomplished and honest work of fiction thus far. It is a book that you will keeping thinking back on, days, weeks, even months later, for its surreal settings, its outrageous events, its flawed but sympathetic characters, its lush language, its astonishing story. The novel is one of this year's literary treasures, an absolute must-find, must-read, and must-cherish.

(Podcast review here.)


( 4 circumlocutions — Add to the Intelligent Discourse )
Aug. 17th, 2006 01:53 am (UTC)
Hear, hear! There is simply nothing quite like it, is there? I'm looking forward to finally seeing the film version!
Aug. 17th, 2006 10:27 pm (UTC)
Yup, you're in for a treat. Where are you seeing it?
Aug. 18th, 2006 01:46 am (UTC)
Unfortunately I'll miss the NY premiere on Sunday because I'm flying out to California early before Worldcon. I'll either catch it online when it's available or sneak the DVD away from 2muchexposition when she isn't looking.
Aug. 18th, 2006 09:14 am (UTC)
Ah, gotcha. And I have to say, since it's an indie project, it's not something that demands a theater experience, so you should be fine watching it on your PC or DVD player.
( 4 circumlocutions — Add to the Intelligent Discourse )

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