A Cabinet of Wonder
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a menagerie of fables, horror tales, hoaxes, art installations, drawings of strange mechanisms, fake sermons, forbidden catalog entries and fabulous architecture all swaddled in a meta-fiction. It’s the literary equivalent of the fabulous collection of Thackery T. Lambshead itself.
The facts are these…and it’s important to remember that none of these are actual facts. Lambshead’s collection of powerful relics and sometimes diabolical clockworks became open to the world after his death in 2003. This collection includes descriptions of artifacts, reflections on their meaning, narratives constructed around them. This is metafiction at its best and a book likely to become a classic at the intersection of fantasy, horror, steampunk and magical realism.
Many readers will know that this is a follow-up to Jeff VanderMeer’s now classic collection The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. Explaining “Ballistic Organ Syndrome”, Wife Blindness” and “Printers Evil”, the guide deployed the talents of Neil Gaiman as well as many of the contributors to the current volume. In this new work, the VanderMeers expand the mythology, I mean the biography, of Thackery T. Lambshead himself. We learn a bit about his socialist politics, his involvement in the postcolonial struggle in Algeria and his intense, and I mean intense, dislike for Louis Pasteur.
The VanderMeers have included contributions from most of the important fantasists and fabulists writing today, including China Miéville, Lev Grossman, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore and others. Indeed, the conceit that some of these authors knew Lambshead, visited him, had versions of various important manuscripts in his strange collection, is part of the fictive construction holding the collection together.
Even more delicious is a wealth of photographs, drawings and images of art exhibits that represent the strange and wondrous objects from Lambshead’s cabinet. Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame contributes drawings for the section labeled “The Mignola Exhibits”. His characteristic use of light and shadow that reminds of early modern European woodcuts illustrates the story of the Clockroach, a mechanism possibly diabolical or perhaps the ingenious creation of a misunderstood and marginalized inventor.
Indeed, the story of the Clockroach and its mysterious origins and meaning reflects a major theme in most of these stories. Each item explored is the artifact of a secret history, a point of collision between warring memories, interpretive marginalia and uncertain narratives. Fantasy here becomes an opportunity to ponder the very nature of narrative and metanarrative.
Michael Cisco’s “The Thing in the Jar” best illustrates this idea. This short tale/ list manages to tell not one, but six or seven, backtories for a horrific little relic. Using the notion of redacted manuscripts and narrative uncertainty, the story also manages to become a subtle critique of western imperialism, a horror tale and a meditation on the relationship between power, knowledge and erotic obsession (with volcanoes, I have to add).
When first picking up Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities, the temptation for most readers of fantasy will be to rush to read the contribution of classic and popular fantasists like Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore and China Miéville. All of these are fascinating with Moore, for example, using his contribution to introduce a bit of his new, mysterious William Blakean project Jerusalem through an extended architectural metaphor.
Miéville’s work plays a special role in the construction of the book with a section Call “The Miéville Anomalies” that explores the hidden biography of Lambshead through stories arrived at by secret means and anachronistic media. Masked strangers leave “cryptic messages,” e-mails link to articles in Greek newspapers that contain coded information and letters arrive from Malaysia from members of a secret radical society promising details on breaking the cipher. Miéville plays with the idea of secrecy here, turning Lambshead into a kind of encoded meme where the worlds of fantasy and the inner architecture of digital media collide.
While enjoying this amazing stuff, don’t miss the work of relative newcomers. Indeed, it is S.J. Chambers and Charles Yu who wrote my own favorite short pieces. Chambers tells a tale of a visit to Lambshead’s “Dark Room” where she was diagnosed with “a disease of the imagination, probably from too much Poe.” We meet “jars of mood” and Lambshead describes how he caught Will-o’-the-wisps with Nabokov’s butterfly nets. Chambers’ imagery and style almost induces synesthesia and reads as part homage to Poe and, more implicitly, to Rimbaud (and maybe even Burroughs).
Charles Yu’s Book of Categories is an archival entry meets tale of a fantastic manuscript that can grows organically and changes size. This book, a book that despite its immense mystery seems to encourage its possessors to pass it along to others, ends up in the hands of an obscure Chinese general and becomes ineluctably intertwined with his own personal tragedy. Assembled as if it was an outline/archival finding aide, this short tale becomes a reflection on the relationship of the reader, history, text and taxonomies of knowledge.
Most readers will find themselves thinking about Jose Luis Borges while they read this non-fictional fiction. Certainly it resembles his work in its exploration of fantasy as a line between fiction and nonfiction instead of some separate, unreachable dimension out of mind and time (“middle earth”). For myself, I couldn’t get Michel Foucault out of my head while reading and rereading this book, especially the French theorists idea of the archaeology of knowledge, the meaning of lists, the secret history of forgotten manuscripts. Indeed, most of what is worthwhile in postmodern theory receives some illustration in this book.
At the same time, Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities represents a kind of anti-Foucaultian statement about the relationship between systems of knowledge and systems of power. As in Yu’s contribution mentioned above, efforts to create sites of power fail and categories are, by their nature, slippery, easy to lose in the fog, dependent on the hands into which they fall.
Every fantasy lover, and all you postmodernists out there, need to take a tour of the Cabinet.