Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Secret Life" by Jeff VanderMeer

This was a cool read for two reasons: that "Secret Life" exposed me to a side of VanderMeer's work I hadn't known existed; and that, this being a relatively old collection that contains stories even considerably older than itself, it unveiled to some degree his development as a writer. This second was particularly interesting to experience.

Granted, I haven't read that much of VanderMeer's oeuvre: "Finch," "Shriek: An Afterword," and now "Secret Lives." But, by my standards, this an enormously in-depth exploration of what an author has to offer, being exactly 200% more books read than 90% of the authors I read. However, "Secret Life" (2004) contains kernels of what was to become "Shriek..." (2006) and "Finch" (2009), making it a sort of vale of Easter eggs even for a reader so little read as myself. In fact, one of my favourite stories in this volume is "The Machine," which is basically transposed word-for-word into "Shriek" as a journal entry. However, the episode (if you've read the story or its novelized fragment, you know what I mean when I call it an "episode") struck me as much more terrifying in its isolated form.

Suffice to say, the ability to survey the evolution of VanderMeer's fantastic wor(ld/k) from the standpoint of these older stories is pretty awesome. "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid," for example, besides being both lol-worthy and a fantastic story in its own right, presages VanderMeer's later work: there's a character by the name of Janet Sheik, who I have no choice but to envision as the precursor of Janice Shriek from "An Afterword." Albumuth Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of Ambergris, appears in the story "Learning to Leave the Flesh," which, though it takes place in an "oddified" city, is otherwise decidedly not Ambergris. "Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist" is an early - and very interesting - go at the creatures that would later become the gray caps (in this case called "mushroom dwellers"). If I'd read VanderMeer's weird SF novel "Veniss Underground," I'd probably have noticed even more of these Easter eggs, because there are four stories set in the same world as the novel.

Obviously, seeing the early incarnations of VanderMeer's later work isn't the only interesting thing about this book. In fact, most of the stories are historically-set, magical-realist fairy tales - very different from what I've experienced of VanderMeer until now, and finally explaining that line in his biography that reads something like, "his travels have deeply influenced his writing." The title story, "Secret Life," is massively hilarious, and very possibly the most entertaining thing I've read by him - let alone one of the best pieces of written comedy I've ever come across.

But, its various virtues aside, the reason "Secret Life" struck me so deeply was because VanderMeer is an author I admire - again, I usually don't read any writer more than once, let alone thrice - and because this collection basically revealed, in snips and snatches, his development, his different ambitions, experiments, and interests. It humanized his work to some degree: I could see that the mastermind behind "Shriek: An Afterword" - one of the most engrossing books I've ever read - was in fact a living brain, that hadn't simply grown up out of the mushroom patch, but had fermented in the brine of different literary styles, approaches, and achievements.

But the best part? Normally, when I go back through an author's catalogue rather than forward, I'm dissappointed. This happened after I read Joe Abercrombie's "The Heroes" and "Best Served Cold," which were excellent, and then picked up "The Blade Itself." To be spare, "The Blade Itself" was horrible writing, and I couldn't read it after Abercrombie's later works had set the bar for me. But with this collection, I wasn't disappointed. The works are significantly different from what I've come to expect from VanderMeer, but they were just as well written, just as engaging, and just as fantastic. The collection was well worth reading, and only got me more interested in reading VanderMeer.

This suggests something to me: some authors don't need editors as badly as others do. VanderMeer, it seems, is one of those writers.

But that's probably a topic for another post. For now, let it be said that this collection gets a thumbs up.



  1. I assume City of Saints and Madmen is next, then? It's pretty good.

    I tried to read Secret Life awhile back, but something about its organization left me cold. However, I just read Finch a few weeks ago, and thought it was brilliant (I'd read Shriek: An Afterword several years ago, and so far it's my favorite of his works).

  2. I had the intention to read City this time around, but it wasn't at the library, and I'm a cheapskate.

    Shriek, in my opinion, is brilliant. I actually read Finch first, and, although it's very good, it can't compare. However, holistically, the Ambergris Cycle is brilliant for being so varied; I can't even think of another series that's so diverse in its presentions and approaches.