Finch

Finch is the (current) culmination of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris sequence (definitely not a trilogy).  Ambergris was first visited in the short story collection City of Saints and Madmen (which I have not read). This was followed by the annotated afterword/biography/autobiography Shriek (An Afterword) (which I have). Finch follows the events depicted in Shriek by about 100 years, and is written in classically noir style.  Never have two books written by the same author and set in the same universe been so stylistically disparate.  Where Shriek was verbose and obfuscatory, Finch is terse.  Shriek was melodramatic and soap-operatic; Finch is gritty and punchy. Shriek spanned decades, while Finch takes place over just a few days.

Thanks to failed lover, intrepid explorer, and kook historian Duncan Shriek we knew by the end of Shriek that the mysterious but seemingly amiable greycaps were brewing up something big.  Here, we find out what that something was.  Taking advantage of the interminable civil warring in Ambergris between the trading houses Hoegbotton and Frankden & Lewdwrithe, they staged an uprising (literally rising from the caverns beneath the city) and occupied the city.  To maintain control, they’ve co-opted some humans to work as their agents by granting them a measure of their fungal power and created a panoptikonic network of floating spore cameras.  The city is under martial law and is wracked by paranoia and deprivation.

The protagonist, John Finch, is a detective reluctantly working under the greycap government.  As the novel opens he’s just been handed a case — two dead bodies, one greycap, one human, have been found in an apartment.  Both seem as though they’ve fallen from a great height; one of them has been sliced perfectly in half.  There’s not much to go on, but many parties seem to be very interested in what Finch might find out…

The plot unfolds in a grim noir style: a few scenes of violent action and gruesome pain evoked Frank Miller’s Sin City. We know that things are going to go downhill from the get go, as each section in the book is prefaced by a transcript of Finch being interrogated and tortured, and, indeed, Finch gets beaten and shot at repeatedly and is betrayed by pretty much everyone he meets (including two femmes fatales).  There’s a particularly tragic thread throughout the book that involves Finch’s partner, the one steadfast person in a world full of people with ambiguous loyalties, gradually being consumed by a fungal infection (which means something very different in the world of Ambergris).

Although I think the book stands on its own, its real strength is as a component in the Ambergris sequence.  The ornate metatextuality of Shriek is echoed here as Finch finds and reads a copy of the book (Shriek [An Afterword], that is):

“He picked up Shriek, began to skim it. Saw at once the conceit: Duncan’s voice in parentheses, commenting on Janice’s history of a broken family and the first war between the Houses. […] Skipped Janice’s own rise in the art world. Beside the point to Finch. He found Janice an exasperating narrator. She hid things, lied, delayed the truth. To undermine and slant. Like a particularly crafty interrogation subject.”

I was unspeakably pleased to come across this passage.  As far as I can see, it is entirely in keeping with VanderMeer’s vision for the books, and is another reason why Finch can’t be pigeon-holed as genre noir.  This excerpt also illustrates the highly stylised language that VanderMeer uses throughout, where subjects, and even verbs, are mercilessly pared away.  I know some readers were put off by this, but I rarely noticed it (and appreciated it when I did).  Set side by side, the contrasting styles of Shriek and Finch make both ‘pop’ to far greater a degree than they would if read alone.  Finally, there are a number of connections between the two books (a character from Shriek also plays a major role here) that made reading Finch seem like a huge pay-off for having read Shriek (which, at time, was a bit more work than it should have been).

To conclude: On one level Finch is an entertaining, though perhaps overly derivative, genre noir thriller.  If you like genre mash-up experiments (and who doesn’t) then you’ll like this.  Alongside Shriek (and presumably City of Saints and Madmen), however, Finch is much more.  It’s part of a wonderfully dense work of intertextual world building and storytelling — highly rewarding and well worth checking out.

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