City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer, has been labelled ‘avant-garde fantasy’. It is. The city is the star; Ambergris is a violent and gothic-romantic ecosystem, the inhabitants of which live in a fearful symbiosis with the deeply mysterious ‘Greycaps’. These underground dwellers were initially displaced by the founders of Ambergris from the much older city that it grew out of.
The Greycaps give a Lovecraftian edge to the tales of the city, silently malign landlords living in a world beneath the city’s people, the balance of power shifted emphatically after their initial genocide at the hands of Ambergris’s founders, with an event known as ‘The Silence’, that shattered the collective psyche of the city’s denizens, leaving behind a fragile society with a black hole where its heart and soul should be. This book feels like Lovecraft-meets-literary fiction, and while not quite as dark as the master, its emotional canvas is broader, a playful black humour mixing with the horror in its veins.
Throughout this collection of stories the Greycaps and the fungi that they have such a mysterious relationship with leave the whole book tinged with mold, the city itself almost permanently rotted with rain and mist. The author has done for mushrooms what Spielberg did for sharks, their almost sentient presence ominous, the citizens living in fear of them and the Greycaps that cultivate them.
I say ‘book’ because Vandermeer doesn’t give us a novel, even a purely episodic one. This is a literary encyclopedia of Ambergris; stories, essays both historical and critical and even a story to be decrypted by the reader from a number sequence. He breaks a fourth wall or two along the way, just for good measure. From a charming and funny essay by a self-proclaimed ‘authority’ on freshwater squids ending in a conspiracy theory that could have come from Spike Milligan, to a pure slice of gothic horror, ‘The Cage’, by way of psychiatric reports of the author trapped in an asylum, the book disregards a single narrative in order to provide a handful of perspectives from the various lives of those who founded and then lived in Ambergris. (I know that parts of the book were previously published in journals, but I don’t know if the format of this book was Vandermeer’s intention all along.)
Anyone writing a ‘second world’/’crossover’/’plain old fantasy’ book, because god knows what I’m meant to call fantasy fiction these days, would be keenly aware and staggered by the behind-the-scenes work that has gone into imagining this city. Vandermeer’s choice of form, and the quality of the work in particular, could only be executed to this standard because of how meticulously imagined and deeply nuanced Ambergris is to him. I am reminded of Gormenghast (meets Ankh-Morpork!), but moreso London or Rome. The former fictional cities were backdrops, the only others that go close to this, while the latter I think can only be understood in the way that Vandermeer has chosen to help us understand Ambergris, through fragments that illuminate how, like them, it was founded and then grew with sacrifice, blood and money, each transfusing the city, maturing it.
With barely an off-note (I thought the imprisoned writer and the actor Belacqua were the least confident aspects of the book, if only because they were about the author’s reflection on his art), Vandermeer has written one of the genre’s masterpieces, pushing its form and forcing all of us that like writing this stuff to think again about what the genre is capable of. His execution is exquisite, my favourite and most exemplary piece being ‘In The Hours After Death’, a dream of a dead man that has become fungus, becoming a man (again?), Vandermeer deepening the mythos of the Greycaps and leaving us at the verge of knowing, like Hoegbotton confronting ‘the Cage’, their divine and splendorous truths.