City of Saints and Madmen
by Jeff VanderMeer
One of the best evocations of a fantasy city I’ve ever seen, this book reads like Loveraft revised by Nabokov. It has Nabokov’s sense of structural play and precision of diction; it also has Lovecraft’s sense of brooding horror, the frisson of man meeting the inhuman. Perhaps Clark Ashton Smith would be a better point of comparison, as there’s a sense of decadence, and indeed of irony, that fits perhaps more closely with Smith than Lovecraft.
Lovecraft was at heart a classicist, and if he extracted a new kind of horror from godless 20th-century science, it was I think ultimately in the tradition of 18th-century deism. City of Saints And Madmen is much more thoroughly post-modernist; in form, it’s a series of texts having to do with the fungi-beset city of Ambergris. Although appearing at first to be separate things, the various pieces of the book cohere to make up a whole. It’s subtle, unsettling, and very well-done; it’s also an intersting way to get at what cannot be known, allowing elements of history and myth to as it were fall in-between the texts. This is less man in an unknowable universe than a universe in which knowledge is futile and untrustworthy.
It’s not as if the stories here aren’t fine tales in their own right, either. VanderMeer’s a strong writer, and builds up an understated atmosphere in his Ambergris, fusing horror and irony in different combinations to create a city of obsessions and degenerate artists and obscure crimes. It’s a truly original creation.