Though I’ve read Veniss Underground and one of his anthologies, this was my first excursion to Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris, a city rotting and fungus-ridden built on swamp and caverns. Ambergris is an ambiguously industrial city state founded some time in the past by colonial merchants. The previous inhabitants of the region, humanoid mushroom folk referred to as ‘greycaps’, have been pushed underground. There is none who speaks their language, and they emerge only infrequently and with mysterious intent.
The novel is not really a novel — it’s more a metatextual fiction (appropriately, the city’s bookshop is named after Borges). Janice Shriek, once wealthy gallery owner and taste maker, is writing an afterword to a pamphlet about the history of Ambergris written by her brother Duncan, who is presumed dead. What was supposed to be a brief note about Duncan’s life turns into a lengthy and non-linear self-indulgent exposition, by turns biographical and autobiographical. After having written it, Janice disappears, only for Duncan to reappear and find the manuscript. He then adds his own commentary to the text, bemoaning his sisters stylistic failings, undermining her egocentric perspective, and elaborating on the details of his own life. He then re-disappears himself.
Janice’s strand charts her rise and fall in the world of art. It’s fairly engrossing, but there is a risk to having the ‘writer’ of your book be someone given to flights of purple prose and narcissistic maunderings… Duncan’s is more interesting. We hear about his development as a historian, his love affair with a student and her subsequent betrayal of him, and his investigation in to unpopular and apparently outré theories regarding the greycaps and their motivations. He goes on lengthy journeys into the greycap’s realm and returns increasingly colonised by fungus (this gradual transformation is beautifully described). Neither story is particularly dense — this is not a plot driven novel; in fact the leaden pace was a bit of a struggle at times — but there’s a peculiar narrative tension created by the jousting perspectives of the siblings that drives the reader forward. For example, Janice is filled with disgust for Mary Sabon (Duncan’s ex-lover and academic rival) because of the harm she perceives her to have done to Duncan. Duncan, however, consistently chides Janice (in his commentary) for being too harsh or having interpreted things incorrectly. The book ends with Duncan having put the clues he’s been gathering together — the greycaps are about to do something momentous.
The world is a highly evocative one, and the whole book is imbued with a marvellous sense of environment. I would love to see a word-cloud of the novel — I expect ‘fungus’, ‘spore’, ‘decay’, ‘mushroom’, ‘growth’, etc. would figure highly. It would be a shame for such a creation to be abandoned, so I’m glad to know that there are other stories written by VanderMeer that are set here (In fact, I’m reading one now [Finch], which I expect I’ll be talking about in the not too distant future).
It’s not a perfect novel by any means, though I’m very glad to have read it. As described above, the kind of plot that makes one eagerly turn pages is not to be found here. In fact, it’s possible that he made excessive use of what plot there is. By this, I mean that he returns to themes and concerns of the characters a little too often, or draws them out for a little longer than they really deserve. Nonetheless, the world-building is excellent. VanderMeer elicits a powerfully palpable sense of unease at the inhuman transformative power of fungus, and his gradual unveiling (in an almost Lovecraftian mode) of the greycaps’ activities is masterful. If you’re looking for something a little more on the cerebral side of Weird fiction, then I would certainly recommend it. Be warned though — you may never look at a mushroom in the same way again…