Fantastic Metropolis

Books to Seek Out

Jeff VanderMeer

All through January, February, March, and April of last year, I threw books against the wall. I rent books in two. I cut them with knives. I burned them in the fireplace and tossed them into the microwave. I used them to mop up the cat’s vomit and to write down my shopping lists. Outside, in our vertiginous right-angle of a yard, I threw them into the air, hoping that they might do what they could not do with words: namely, draw breath and fly. Sometimes single words set me off, so that many a tome’s pages resembled a series of blindfolded hostages, the blindfolds made of black magic marker. Other times, whole pages screamed out for assisted suicide — and I helped them with scissors or with a quick rip of the wrist. For an excruciating quartet of months it appeared I would never read anything good again.

Then, slowly, it began to change. The weather became crisp and warm as buttered toast. My allergies cleared up. My nightmares changed to dreams of rows of unread volumes, a crop as wholesome as golden sheafs of wheat. (One night, the gods’ messenger Garuda even came to me in my sleep and whispered, Perdido Street Station in my ear and I smiled and hugged the pillow, anticipated bliss transforming my features.)

Slowly and then in bunches, new books began to tumble from the sky, from the fireplace, from the mailbox, from behind bushes and hedgerows, appearing between the covers, under the couch, beneath the dust jackets of other, lesser, books entirely. And with a dusty muffled hiccup of words in some cases, with a bray of trumpets in others, with a stuttered curse, with a sweeping vision of a city skyline broken with spires, I read them, the titles tumbling off the tongue like ambrosia: Magic Prague, Life and Fate, House of Leaves, The World’s Most Dangerous Places, Moonshadows, The Smell of Telescopes, The Other Side of the Mountain… Since then, I have yet to experience a similar such fecund period of reading enjoyment, alas…

Magic Prague

By Angelo Maria Ripellino, translated by David Newton Marinelli
(University of California Press, 1994)

Ripellino is mad (and his familiar, the translator Marinelli, madder still). He cannot distinguish reality from fantasy, fact from fiction. I love him for it. Who else could mix, in a great Arcimboldic stew, Kafka and Hašek, alchemists and golems, so that a line from a poem by Nezval is as real as a Prussian general and a monster made of clay can still roam the streets of that beleaguered bohemian city along with bicyclists and automobiles. Connections burst from Ripellino’s head fully-formed, as beautiful as any offspring of Zeus:

To this day, every evening at five, Franz Kafka returns home to Celetna Street wearing a bowler hat and black suit. To this day, every evening, Jaroslav Hašek proclaims to his drinking companions in one or another dive that radicalism is harmful and wholesome progress can be achieved only through obedience to authority. To this day Prague lives under the sign of these two writers who better than all others expressed its irrevocable condemnation and therefore its malaise, its ill-humour, the ins and outs of its wiles, its duplicity, its grim irony.

Genre and great art juxtapose themselves in still-life dances of marvelous insight, such as this passage on Arcimboldo and Lovecraft…

There is something amorphous, flaccid and revolting about the managerie face entitled Earth [by Arcimboldo]; it is a hunter’s nightmare, a sinister muddle of beasts. Water, a monstrous head of bug-eyed fish, octopuses, eels, tiny sea animals, conch shells, and snail shells, is the triumph of slime, my idea of Lovecraft’s horrid giant squid head of the sea god Cthulhu.

Magic Prague, with perfect baroque brashness, provides me with the collective unconscious of an entire city in an utterly unique way that presages Steve Erickson’s ability in nonfiction to fuse those elements that make perfect sense to interpose and transpose, but that only a truly unique mind can manage to translate into readable prose.

Life and Fate

By Vassily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler
(The Harvill Press, 1985)

Grossman is not mad, but his world is, mixing as it does the Heller of Catch-22 with the vibrant Bulgakov of The Master and Margarita, and then grounding it all in a gloss of social realism more suiting Theodore Dreisser than Doestoyevski. The family saga of One Hundred Years of Solititude condensed to the period surrounding the battle for Stalingrad and stripped of all intervening magical distance — and yet luminous when mundane and surreal when horrific. Grossman actually covered Stalingrad as a journalist and was one of the first to observe the death camps as the Soviets liberated them. And yet when Gross writes:

“This spring we were stationed near Sviatogorsk,” Lyakhov told her. “Once there was a terrible whistling right over our heads, but we couldn’t hear any shots. We didn’t know what on earth was happening. It turned out to be the starlings, imitating bullets… the lieutenant had even put us on alert — they did it perfectly.

We do not care if the detail is historically correct, but because it seems emotionally correct, regardless.

The translation of this novel, by Robert Chandler, is note-perfect — Chandler manages to preserve the line-by-line richness of Grossman’s descriptions while at the same time nurturing a fast-paced narrative flow that, intercutting between Stalingrad and other areas of the Soviet Union and Germany, effortlessly slips between characters as diverse as Russian infantrymen, German prisoners of war, Stalin, Hitler, and Friedrich Paulus, the general of the doomed German 6th Army. Few novels, in their mix of black comedy and pathos, satire of the human condition, and three-dimensional, flawed characters, could truly deserve the title of Life and Fate. Most would crumble to dust under the weight of such a title. But not Grossman’s book. Grossman, of course, suffered that most unkind of fates: his book, smuggled to the West on microfiche, was only published after his death. It is almost unbearable to think of the mind that could create a work of this magnitude — a Russian novel of the first order — recoiling day after day from the reality of his novel caught in limbo, written but not published, beautiful and strange and terrible.

Your only hope of full enjoyment lies in reading for several hours at a time. Otherwise, the vast cast of characters will recede into a mist of anonymous ski’s and ivan’s from which you will never, ever find your way out.

House of Leaves

By Mark Z. Danielewski
(Pantheon Books, 2000)

Nor will you find your way out of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, with its stories within stories, its devious subterranean measurements, its extra dimensions. Footnotes stumble through the text like wayward explorers: sometimes a little closer to home, sometimes completely lost-and losing the reader too. Additional text at the coda of the book serves only to provide some lovely epistolary entertainment that, alas, cannot, under questioning, justify its presence in the narrative. Nonetheless, the Blair Witch-meets-Kierkegaard main story of a family that moves into a house only to find that their house is bigger on the inside than the outside–namely, an extra six feet of corridor, leading down into a potentially endless series of labyrinths — is brilliant, meshed as it is with the idea that the photographer head of the family filmed the horrible happenings — and these film fragments are distributed to folks who think it is a fictional horror movie. Apparently, the house, or the space where the house currently exists, has been around for a long time, as proved by this excerpt from a Raleigh-era hunting expedition caught in the winter blizzards:

20 Janiuere, 1610

More fnow. Bitter cold. This is a terrible Place we have stumbled on. It has been a Week fince we haue fspied one living thing. Were it not for the ftorm we would have abandoned it. Verm was plagued by many bad Dreames last night.

21 Janiuere, 1610

The ftorm will not break. Verm went out to hunt but returned without the houre. The Wind makes a wicked found in the Woods. Ftrange as it muft feem, Tiggs, Verm, and I take comfort in the found. I fear much more the filence here. Verm tellf me he dreamt of Bones last night. I dreame of the Sunne.

22 Janiuere, 1610

We are dying. No food. No fhelter. Tiggs dreamt he faw all fnow about us turn Red with blood.

And then the last entry:

23 Janiuere, 1610

Ftaires! We have found ftaires!

The fractured narrative, the narratives within narratives, the changing points of view, all create a believability that would have been lacking using a traditional narrative structure. Of small import but of great glee to the reader: Danielewski leavens his story with quotes about the film from famous artists, filmmakers, etc., but in such a way that the text absorbs them — 70 years from now, when no one knows who Dr. Joyce Brothers is, her quote will still resonate in this book. The first, joyous, utterly absorbing outburst from a writer who will, one day, write books that are not so much outbursts as beautifully intricate works of art, each element in its proper place.

Motor through the footnotes and the typography experiments as they are but juvenilia next to other such experiments by Alasdair Gray, et al. Instead, focus the meat of your attention on the meat of the text, that it and you may feast on each other in equally ravenous fashion.

The World’s Most Dangerous Places

By Robert Young Pelton
(HarperCollins, 2000)

Those of you who have explored House of Leaves may be surprised to find that the real world is more murderous, more mysterious, and more insane than any book. The World’s Most Dangerous Places documents that insanity from pole to pole, including the ludicrously large amount of land covered by mines, the number of deaths from regional/local wars in the past 20 years, and rape/murder statistics from some of the world’s more unsavory places. In listing more than 30 dangerous countries, the bizarre facts pile up like a mound of severed limbs:

Liberia’s Charles Taylor-led rebels included military personnel with names like General No-Mother-No-Father, General Housebreaker, General Fuck-Me-Quick, and ‘the gregarious General Butt Naked.’ General Butt-Naked was particularly visible since he fought battles in his prime-evil buff-his only uniform was a pair of scuffed tennis shoes and his only armor the protective stench of stale liquor no bullet would dare penetrate. These days you’ll find Butt Naked preaching the word of God on Broad Street in Monrovia as a born again preachers.

Ahmed Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierre Leone like to eat their captives: the most favored entrees are the liver and heart. Another nasty trick the guerillas employ on captives is the slashing of ankle tendons and neck muscles. Nice guys. Makes the Khmer Rouge look like a ladies’ field hockey team. Over 100,000 inhabitants of Sierre Leone have had limbs cut off by the RUF since 1991. Some noted commanders of the Cut Hands Commando include Captain 2 Hands, Commander Cut Hands, Dr. Blood, Betty Cut Hands, OC Cut Hands and Adama Cut Hands.

Peace Corps instructions for How to Survive an Anaconda Attack:

  1. Do not run. The snake is faster than you.
  2. Lie flat on the ground, put your arms tight against your sides and your legs tight against each other.
  3. Tuck your chin in.
  4. The snake will begin to nudge and climb over your body.
  5. Do not panic.
  6. The snake will begin to swallow you feet first.
  7. You must lie perfectly still. This will take a long time.
  8. When the snake has reached your knees, reach down, take out your knife, slide it into the side of the snake’s mouth between the edge of its mouth and your leg. Quickly rip upward, severing the snake’s head.
  9. Be sure you have your knife.
  10. Be sure your knife is sharp.

Pelton’s writing style fully acknowledges the absurdity of the world-and reminds me of the black humor dramatized in a movie like MASH, where the triage doctors have to joke about the death around them in order to remain human.

Interspersed with these facts, Pelton includes essays about the various locations from his own first-hand accounts or those of his fellow contributing journalists. Among the most moving is the account of Chechnya’s villagers who, with nowhere to run to in the face of a Russian military offensive, decide to remain in their village and put a funeral for one of the recently killed villagers, lit by the trace fire of missiles. There’s more horror, black humor, and, yes, goodness and dignity in the face of death in this atrocity exhibit than in any hundred novels you might care to sample.It’s no surprise that the CIA apparently buys each new edition of this book, since the information contained in it seems like prime intelligence. (Not: Th amout of tiepografical er rors in book xceed thr per paige bt the bock are worth riding de sprite this foct.)

The Other Side of the Mountain

By Michel Bernanos
(Houghton Mifflin, 1968)

With Candide-like brevity and the sanctity of spare prose, Bernanos chills the reader with one of the most quietly horrific accounts of an explorer’s journey to another place. The book is long out of print — a situation that should be rectified immediately. This little piece of the alien and the alienated gets under your skin in a myriad of unsettling ways. It begins as a simple Robert Louis Stevenson/Melville story of a youth indentured at sea to a brutal crew… who becomes lost… who turns to cannibalism… who then passes into a strange land:

All around us was the liquid void. The day grew lighter and lighter and on the horizon a curious red hue preluded the sun-a color akin to blood. Slowly it spread. I had never seen anything quite like it and for a moment I imagined I was having hallucinations. I was amazed to see that when the sun finally rose it was entirely speckled with this same strange color, as if it had suffered a wound…

Until gradually the narrative’s inexorable and steady pace by itself acclimatizes us to upcoming disaster with image after image that will remain with you long after the last page has been read. Some books are strange fish. They fit no known pattern. Their scales flicker with an emerald and unknowable light. But you’d be mistaken to throw them back.

Moonshadows

By J.M. DeMatteis, illustrated by Jon J. Muth
(Graphitti Designs, 1989)

Other books — or graphic novels/comics in this case-tackle the theme of transformation: of movement through the elements of society to some form of transcendence. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shuffles Daedelus through all the traps offered by society: religion, classicism, etc. In Moonshadow, the epynonymous protagonist is born in an intergalactic zoo created by an enigmatic “pure energy” race of smiley-face whimsters called G’l-Doses who destroy whole civilizations and rescue still other civilizations. As a teenage, Moonshadow, product of a human mother and a G’l-Doses father, is provided a space ship by his father and, accompanied by a degenerate nonhuman named Ira, sets off on what he believes will be glorious adventures. Instead, his tale of woe — his transformation through experiencing all the evil humankind has to offer-makes the reader want to weep… pulled back from the shedding of tears by the sheer blackness of the author’s vision and the great variety of styles/beauty of the illustrator’s art. Like Candide, like Daedelus in his immolations, but more like Daedelus in his transformations. Seeded through with low humor and black humor, touched with a hint of divine insanity (and marred by an amorphous ending), Moonshadows touches the heart in the same ways as a book like Stepan Chapman’s The Troika: by tearing bits of it out of you.

The Smell of Telescopes

By Rhys Hughes
(Tartarus Press, 2000)

That Welsh trickster, Rhys Hughes, makes a mockery of every literary convention under the sun, indulges in garrulous word-play beyond the patience of Gilbert and Sullivan, shows his Welsh roots at every opportunity, and transcends the deliberately self-conscious elements of his postmodern style to entertain the reader at the highest levels, each sentence as gleefully petulant as this one, although more controlled. Perhaps story titles will provide the best synopsis of the varied madness of the contents: “The Purloined Liver,” “The Squonk Laughed,” “A Person Not in the Story,” “The Hush of Falling Houses,” “Depressurized Ghost Story.” Each tale endeavors to make the metaphor flesh and to hardwire into each sentence a complicated series of verbal somersaults and punning pratfalls. Sometimes, as with all activities that include a high degree of difficulty, the acrobats miss the grasp of familiar hands and fall to the circus floor far below — but only rarely. A more playful or exuberant collection could hardly be imagined, as perhaps marginally captured by the following passage from “Depressurized Ghost Story,” in which a Victorian mountain climber visits Tibet:

It may be of interest to record that I was first to the top, though I did not boast of my achievement aloud, contenting myself with a little dance. The consequences of this action were… (yes, an avalanche has swept away the rest of this paragraph. It has taken one of my readers with it. There he goes! Him with the beard!”

Hughes’ prose has the lightness of Calvino’s prose mixed with a hardy Welsh texture that grounds it in the ridiculously practical. Hughes is probably one of the most criminally neglected writers in the world — in that his imagination, inventiveness, linguistic cleverness, and his lack of cliché should have been enough to long ago attract the attention of the same literary mainstream that delights in the aforementioned Calvino, in Borges, in any number of highly respected fabulists of the past 50 years.


This book list originally appeared in altered form in the New York Review of Science Fiction.

Copyright © 2002 by Jeff VanderMeer.