Living Fiction

I just finished re-reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Veniss Underground. I read it and loved it when it first came out, lured by a stunning review of the book by Michael Moorcock.

This time around, as I re-read Veniss I started to think about what draws me back to particular books. I don’t re-read a lot of books, but when I do, it’s because there’s some kind of emotional core to the story that speaks to me, something that claws at my heart and makes me go, “oh.” I had different reasons, I thought, for loving some books and not others, but as I read, I realized there was something more to it, something that the ones I re-read have in common.

Oh, sure, there’s the awesome stuff, too. Veniss is probably the most beautifully nightmarish city I’ve ever clawed through in fiction. People selling their parts for bread, programmers running a dying city, independent governments ruling various sections of the city, Living Artists who hack up themselves and others in the pursuit of the perfect organic creation, sludge-filled seas and vast underground caverns and weird, fantastic, horrible creatures that slurp and crawl and beg and grovel and fight and tear; creatures full of rage and sadness.

But there are other books that do a lot of great worldbuilding that I haven’t re-read, that I thought were good or at least interesting reads, but never loved: Perdido Street Station, In Viriconium, Move Underground, Calenture, and Tainaron, to name a few. There are similiarly nightmarish qualities to The Book of the New Sun cycle as well.

The difference between books I like and books I keep returning to out of love (as opposed to reading to see how something was pulled off, technically, which you do a lot more of as a writer than a reader) has to do with how well it resonates with me. As a writer, this is sort of terrifying: you can cut yourself open on the page and put all the good stuff there, but unless you have a reader who’s also bringing something to the table, emotionally, it’s going to fall flat.

And it’s true. When I looked at the few books I’ve reread: Veniss, Lust, The Hours, Flesh and Blood, The Etched City, The Affirmation, Dradin, in Love (I even went so far as to buy the hugely expensive Buzzcity Press edition) and The Book of Revelation, I realize that each of them touches on a core emotional truth or emotional journey that I can relate to in some way.

Veniss is told from three points of view: Nicolas, a selfish, starving “Living Artist” and compulsive liar who sells himself out to the mysterious crime boss-like Quin, creator of the city’s most beautiful and terrible creatures. Nicola is Nicolas’ twin sister, and works in one of the big highrises as a programmer who keeps all of the city’s vital systems functioning and once worked as a sort of social worker/guide who helped people who won the lottery to come up from the level upon level of cities “down below” adjust to life in the above-ground city. Shadrach is Nicola’s former lover, a man who spent the first twenty-four years of his life down below and fell in love with Nicola at the same moment he fell in love with the light, with the world above ground.

Nicola, in turn, fell in love with Shadrach:

His eyes held the light, except that somehow he made you smile. His eyes held you, and you found yourself thinking how odd it was that to find the light you must descend into darkness. He eclipsed your senses, and you still do not know whether you fell in love with him in that instant, at first sight, or whether it was his love for you, as radiant as the sun, that you came to love so fiercely.

But over time, her love faded as she realized he did not love her, but the idea of her:

Eventually, he became familiar to you, which you didn’t mind, for no one can long sustain passion without the relief, the release, of domestic tranquility. What you could not tolerate was the inequality that crept up on you. It was the inequality of worship, for Shadrach mastered the city, became a part of it, and in this mastery he gained a distinct advantage over you, the resident, who had never needed mastery to make the city work for you… Somehow, you realized one day, as he surprised you with flowers and dinner at a fancy restaurant; somehow, instead of becoming more real to him, you had become less real, until you existed so far above him and yet so far below that to become real again, you had to escape – his body, his scent, his words.

On a bare bones level, this is a quest story: Nicolas gets himself into trouble with the mighty Quin, Nicola tries to rescue him and is, in turn, captured. Shadrach gives up everything and goes after her into Hell itself, down below, the place he never wanted to go back to. Because without Nicola – even a Nicola who he knows does not love him – he has nothing. He’s lost the light.

Shadrach’s journey is heart wrenching. He does literally descend into hell, full of bloody, flayed creatures, crimson light, millions locked in eternal, purposeless drudgery, piles of limbs, organs sold for bread, and he does it all to find a woman who does not love him.

There’s a terrible moment when, after he’s already shared her memories while she’s comatose in order to find out who threw her into a donor scrap heap of body parts and left her for dead, that he knows with utter certainty, without a doubt, that she really, truly doesn’t love him. And sure, he knew that all along. They’ve been apart for five years: but experiencing that from her point of view, to know it, to feel it, nearly breaks him. But even after all that, there’s this moment:

… then he realized he had seen the forest in Nicola’s head, in her mind. And he wondered whether there really was such a place above level. What if he had entered a series of dreams in her mind – of things that actually happened, but that were distorted, unsound, mirror images. For a moment, this thought disoriented him (didn’t it mean she might love him after all?).

And this is, I think, why I keep coming back to this story. Because in the end, the guy doesn’t get the girl. He does everything a hero should do in a fairytale. He fights for her. He loves her to the point of obsession. He goes out to avenge her. He fights the monsters and brings her back up into the light.

But when he looks at her in the end, under the stars, he does so knowing that she does not love him and will not love him. He did what he did out of love for her, knowing it wouldn’t change anything (hoping, maybe, during the worst of it, but always knowing she did not love him).

It’s a story that always makes me think about unconditional love, and hero tropes. After proving one’s love, you’re supposed to be rewarded. You’re supposed to get the girl. That’s the payoff. That’s how it works, right? But in real life, no, it doesn’t work that way, and even better: I think VanderMeer did a really fantastic job working from Nicola’s POV and making us understand *why* it wasn’t going to work that way. If we just got Shadrach’s POV – here’s the woman I worshipped, who I did everything right with, who scorned me – I don’t think we’d understand. It’s getting Nicola’s POV that sells this, that explains why she can’t love him. She can’t be worshipped. She needs to be a real person.

And I think that was where I really connected with this story. I’ve loved people who didn’t love me back, yes, and that makes the Shadrach parts of the book even more heart wrenching, but I have even more experience being somebody’s Best Thing, being made up to be better than I am, to be perfect. And to have to turn away from someone because you feel you’re being held up as something you’re not, going from equals to unequals over the course of time, slowly losing yourself to someone else’s idea of you… that’s what I always connect with, every time. And the truth of that, of how that feels, always strikes me as terribly true, and terribly sad.

Sad, even more, because Shadrach realized, finally, what he loves so much about Nicola, something he’s never told her:

So perhaps he had believed in symbols after all – perhaps the frame of the light as he ascended that first time drew him to her as it touched her body: blind moth to blinding flame. And maybe it was just this: when he came up into the light, the light shone upon her and she was not perfect. She had a face a trifle too narrow, a dull red birthmark between her thumb and forefinger, hair framing her face in tangled black strands. Such perfect imperfection, and he fell into her eyes because now, and only now, could he believe in this new world into which he had been reborn. It was populated with imperfect, beautifully imperfect, strangers, and how it had broken his heart that first time – to know that after so much darkness, the light could be so real, so alive. Not perfect, but real – all of it, the world, the woman, his life.

The paragraph above also illustrates something else that many of the books I’ve reread (particularly Lust and The Hours) have in common: a deep love for humanity in all of its imperfections. In Veniss, we’re shown the full horror of human abuses and vices, and also shown what one person will go through for love. And then you get this sad, joyful acceptance – even love – of the good and the bad; of people, of life.

It is this, from The Hours:

Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.

And it’s this doomed love of humanity; despite or because of all of our faults and miscommunication, that speaks to me most, that keeps me coming back to these sorts of books; this shared idea that sure, life can be crap, and it can be so lovely and light, and light or dark it’s ours, it’s what we have. We make do.

And hope for more.

It’s this love that makes me fall in love with these books; it’s the passion, the acceptance and celebration of imperfection.

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