[21 March 2011]
Jeff VanderMeer is best known for his Ambergris novels but has branched out into comics, animation and experimental filmmaking. In essence, he is one of those creatives that any lover of fantasy, horror and sci fi would want to sit down and talk with about his favorite books, his influences and what shapes the fantastic landscapes of his own mind.
VanderMeer’s new essay collection, Monstrous Creations, allows us to have that conversation. This is a sort of rarities and B-sides assemblage of occasional pieces by the highly prolific author, much of which has appeared before as blog posts, in the pages of the new Weird Tales, in online journals like Bookslut and even major newspapers like The Washington Post.
Collections like this from a talented writer (much like odds and ends albums from great bands) can sometimes feel like what they often are: leftovers that were never collected anywhere else because they are second-rate. VanderMeer’s collection of reflections on books and writers who deal with the monstrous is the opposite. It contains fireworks explosions of insights into the nature of the weird and a fine introduction to a number of rather obscure writers that most fans of the fantastic likely do not know.
The review essays contained in Monstrous Creatures tend to be bite-sized. You can dip in anywhere to get 800-1,000 words on art inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, reflections on the tradition of the fantastic in Prague, or how an author’s personal politics affects the shaping of a fantasy world. One of the joys of the collection is an interview with famed fantasist China Mieville whose Un Lun Dun also gets a critical, but very precise, review in the work, as well. Mieville and VanderMeer engage in a discussion of the nature of “weird fiction” that ranges from chatting about favorite books and authors to explaining why so-called “pulp” writers make florid language part of the very fabric of their narrative.
Several other items stand out for the kind of cerebral curiosity they create. “An Anvil is Not An Artichoke” is one of the best discussions of the graphic novel as a form that I have come across. VanderMeer effectively skewers the tendency to equate the graphic novel with the prose novel, which he wisely describes as coming from “a sense of wanting to be taken seriously.” He makes the case that comics are different because they can pull off conceits impossible in the prose novel, such as juxtapositions in time and space that would be “cumbersome” at best in the novel (and likely just plain confusing). Along the way he makes some controversial comments about American Born Chinese recently placing as a finalist in the YA category of the National Book Award that most readers will find deliciously provocative.
Then there are the essays that have caused my own reading list to grow from the overwhelming to the bewildering. VanderMeer has convinced me I have to spend at least a few days of my life on Catherynne M. Valente’s The Labyrinth and meet its Golden Hare with “a Bodhisattva’s face”. I also learned I need to get Steve Erickson’s Zerovilleright away, with its blending of images from LA and the film industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s into what VanderMeer calls “an American surrealism”. And that my life will be in no way meaningful if Michael Ajvaz’s The Other City doesn’t become a part of it. Certainly VanderMeer writes in this way, celebrating even as he is critiquing and making you remember why you fell in love with the written word to begin with.
Another of the more pleasurable essays is a review of hipster scribe Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy, a strange book that induces an almost hallucinatory reading experience with its ability to embody us in one of the more bizarre literary avatars. VanderMeer celebrates the author’s ability to skewer American society but disdains, rightfully, the author’s willingness to create one-dimensional characters that transform what could have been the most important satirical novel of the early 21st century into a “broad farce”.
There are a few more personal pieces that are, frankly, not as strong as the rest of the collection and feel ill-placed. “The Hanukah Bear”, for example is a wry tale about the author’s daughter that, while well crafted, won’t have much meaning for someone who picked up this collection to enjoy VanderMeer criticism. At least one of these more personal essays, dealing with the art of the novella, will probably hold some interest for aspiring writers of fiction.
Taken together, these essays constitute a kind of love letter to the reading life, as well as a Baedeker’s guide to some of the best of literary fantasy. Its not to be missed by serious fantasy lovers.
So that’s the good stuff. Unfortunately, the book is really marred by the presentation and this is, unfortunately, a case where the book will be judged by its cover. The design of the book is very unprofessional and will strike most readers as the production of a vanity press. The artwork has potential, with a great bear-like creature chomping a way on a book. Unfortunately it’s a drawing more or less buried under a brown sludge of a palette.
Worst of all, my copy has the title misspelled on the spine. I have hope that I was sent an uncorrected reviewers copy although usually that is not indicated. And even a reviewer’s copy should not have the title misspelled. This is bad, very bad.
As an author who has not always been pleased with what has happened to his books in the production process, I feel VanderMeer’s pain. Writers often have only limited control over the design of their books and I suspect that Vandermeer, a true pro, is pretty displeased with what happened here. His insightful essays deserve better treatment.