I don’t need to bother, of course, cause I’ve finally gotten through Vandermeer’s King Squid.
I set myself the task of finishing up Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, which I’d gotten halfway through and then put aside because Secret Life wasn’t out yet, and I wanted another Vandermeer to read before I finished the first one. Now Secret Life’s been out for months and months (it just keeps sitting in my amazon.com shopping cart, because I keep blowing my book allowance at the Borders across the street, and V’s books won’t hit the mainstream shelves until next year – it’s all special order till then), so City of Saints isn’t done, but I’m in the home stretch.
And last night, I suddenly understood all the to-do about the squid. I read King Squid, and the pages and pages of annotated bibliography that follow it (I think the bibliography is longer than the actual story – but, then, the cool thing about Vandermeer is the stories-within-stories). Calamari’s just never going to taste the same. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m not going to explain it. Just read the book. Obsessive dorks like me will appreciate it.
In any case, I’ve been wanting to address some themes in a couple of Vandermeer’s peices that really jumped out at me, and are big contributers to my interest in his work.
There are spoilers here, so if you’d like to be shaken awake by these endings, particularly that of Dradin, please read Dradin, in Love first, then come back here. It’s the ending that did it for me in Dradin and Veniss Underground.
Weird and grotesque as the stories are (in a good way), I approach my reading with a fine eye toward love/friendship/desire between and among the sexes, and you’ll find that there’s a lot of SF/F crap out there that doesn’t take these relationships apart and examine them, or does it in a way that’s badly written and boring, or thinks it’s examining them and then does the same tired old thing.
Vandermeer’s work isn’t primarily addressing these issues, either, but I’ve seen some themes he’s working with that I like.
The two peices that interest me the most are “Dradin, In Love” and Veniss Underground; they’re peices that deal with madness and desire – and, particularly – the obsessions of a male protagonist directed at the idea of a woman.
In Dradin, Dradin becomes obsessed with a woman he glimpses in a storefront, and his desire for this ideal woman drives him toward the unraveling of his own delusions.
Dradin’s overwhelming obessesion with the woman in the window, the obsession that begins to uncover for the reader his spiral from madness to murder to deepening madness… culminates in his rushing to the third floor of the storefront and confronting the woman – only to discover that he’s become obsessed with a mannequin. The love of his life isn’t a real person.
And that’s not even the best part – the best part is he realizes how wonderful it is that she’s not real:
“It did not matter that she was in pieces, that she was not real, for he could see now that she was his salvation. Had he not been in love with what he saw in the third story window, and had what he had seen through that window changed his essential nature? Wasn’t she better suited to him than if she had been real, with all the avarices and hungers and needs and awkwardnesses that create dissapointment? He had invented an entire history for this woman and now his expectations of her would never change and she would never age, never criticize him, never tell him he was too fat or too sloppy or too neat, and he would never have to raise his voice to her.”
Dradin flees the scene carrying the mannequin’s head under his arm – escaping the city with his perfect princess, rescued from the high tower.
The total fuck-up of the classic fairytale is just gorgeous.
And it’s that moment of utter understanding of the character you’ve followed over the course of this story – the understanding that he doesn’t see people, and doesn’t *want* to see people – that left me floored. It’s watching a character accept the fact that what he’s really in love with is a thing, an idea.
What makes it powerful is reading it while sitting here in a self-obsessed consumer culture, in cities where we don’t see each other, in a society that chooses its mates based on their dress sizes and the prettiness of their faces; where a person’s moral character is judged entirely by how much fat they have on their bodies and what clothes they wear. We’re not complex people anymore: just things.
And women, of course, most of all.
In Veniss, Shadrach’s quest for Nicola – the woman who does not love him – also looks like a classic male protagonist going through hell to win the woman he loves. He feels the need to rescue her from what is essentially the organic-punk version of the seven levels of hell.
What makes this story for me, as well, is that in the ending where the Male Hero and Damsel in Distress crawl back up into the light and look out over the city – she doesn’t fall into his arms and declare her undying love. They aren’t a happy romantic couple at book’s end. Her feelings haven’t changed. Nor have his. He rescued her because he loved her, and throughout, Shadrach never expects that she will love him. There’s no sexual reward for the male lead, no expectation of an obligated wife who feels that she can never leave him because he chose to save her. It was his choice to go after her, and neither he nor she expects that there is a debt for this.
This was probably one of the best illustrations I’ve seen (as yet – which is telling about how rare this sort of affection is, protrayed in the media) of the love-without-obligation (unconditional love) between a man and a woman who are or have been sexually attracted to one another. You’ll see lots of brotherly love in war movies and stories, and mothers’ unconditional love for children, but very, very rarely do you see a man risk his life for a woman he’s not related to and who he doesn’t appear to expect he’ll “get” (all that comes to mind right now is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s version of The Phantom of the Opera, and in that case, the hounds were closing in and the male lead was a dead guy anyway) Instead, you’ll often see this behavior with a gender switch: the too smart/too fat/too ugly background female character (slave girl, prostitute) will sacrifice herself for the smart/built/handsome male lead who doesn’t love her, so that he can go on to save the princess.
Along these same lines, another short, “The Cage” (compiled in City of Saints) features antiquities dealer Robert Hoegbotton, who loves and desires his wife primarily because of her helplessness (as he regards her blindness) and her dependence on him.
I’ve read some critiques of Vandermeer’s characters – mainly that his people feel two-dimensional in their fleshy settings. But I think that I’m not reading two-dimensional characters so much as I’m reading about entirely self-obsessed male protagonists (I’m having trouble finishing Adam Robert’s Stone for this reason – self-obsession in shorts is fine, but over 300 or 400 pages, it gets exhausting). What I’m seeing when I read V’s shorts are protagnoists who see the people in their lives as things (this is not as true for Shadrach, but I do believe that rescuing Nicola becomes more to him about the gesture than the person, by the end of the book).
There’s a strange lack of female POV characters in most of the Vandermeer work I’ve read, which didn’t start to bug me until about halfway through City of Saints (In Veniss, Nicola’s POV takes up roughly 1/3 of the book, the other two characters being the men in her life – her POV is neatly and appropriately sandwiched between them, as she exists as the plot-point damsel that drives Shadrach’s actions, and – as I recall – serves as her brother’s currency).
Most of the characters serving as background are men, and the Ambergris of City of Saints is a very Victorian, men-in-the-streets type of city, though there are offhand references to some dynamic female thinkers, writers, and explorers. Some of them even make a brief appearance, but most of the women outside of the plot-pivot point of the story are the requisite mentions of sisters, daughers and mad mothers (to be fair, all the fathers are pretty mad, too).
In any other writer – like a writer whose endings to Dradin and Veniss would have been more safe and predictable – I’d throw my hands up and start over with somebody else’s stuff, but with Vandermeer, you can see him working through all of these different themes, and you can watch them popping up in other stories and being worked through in subsequent books. Madness/lust/desire/obsession – they’re great story pieces, and you throw onto that these exotic settings, dense wording, and that underlying sense of the macabre (I had a friend tell me that after reading City of Saints he had nightmares about mushrooms – ) and you’re gonna get something really interesting to gnaw on.
I think a part of my fascination is seeing where Vandermeer’s going to go next with this stuff. He’s just sold mass market rights to the works above, and has a new book, Shriek coming out next year.
He’s a writer whose pet themes I like…