Finch by Jeff VanderMeerTaken on its own, the opening set piece of Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch -- wherein a detective of, shall we say, hard-boiled disposition investigating the death of a mushroom person ingests some of the “corpse” and undergoes a trippy recreation of the fallen fungus’ last moments -- is, pound for pound, probably more batshit insane than anything in the vast and moldering shelves of fantasy and pulp crime crowding our nation’s bookstores. Yes, there is genre-splicing afoot, with the dungeony, dragony, Tolkien-inspired hack-and-slash that launched a thousand twenty-sided dice getting the Sin City treatment, complete with often article-free narration (“Gun skittered out of his hand. A shooting pain in his left leg, ribs. Cried out.”), a mash-up one of the novel’s blurbs refers to as, no kidding, “fungal noir.” Well, great. As a matter of fact, chances are that the word “fungus” or one of its derivatives shows up as often as “he” and “the” combined.
Finch is the latest entry in the Ambergris series first jerked into cult consciousness by VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it by the look of things. Like Fairuza Balk at the beginning of Return to Oz, we find our city in ruins: a race of vegetative usurpers called the Grey Caps have conquered the once-mighty Ambergris, the disgraced heroes of its royal houses have been pushed into indentured service as detectives wielding fungal firearms and the streets are full of ghoulish mushroom addicts called Partials. The only hope seems to stem from pirate radio personality/revolutionary leader The Lady In Blue and the lowlife denizens of the Spit (“an island made of lashed-together boats”), meaning that a work of tough guy noir/dark fantasy is asking us, for a change, to sympathize with roguish, brooding anti-heroes on the run from a shadowy past.
VanderMeer is a charter member of an intentionally loose subset of science fiction writers variously termed “speculative,” “slipstream,” or the “New Weird.” There’s even a discussion (mostly within the pages of magazines like Weird Tales, of which VanderMeer’s wife is editor, a symposium of the fair folk if ever there was one) that aims to distinguish between these terms -- to sort out what does and does not constitute “steampunk,” to decide which of these best describes the work of upstart fabulist Chine Miéville -- but the underlying link is a consciousness, both social and literary, that gives the lie to the old escapist fantasy of the Twentieth Century. Thomas Covenant, Lucy Pevensie and Roger Zelazny’s displaced Princes of Amber had the luxury of being whisked from humdrum planet Earth into magical countries that shuddered from the baggage they brought with them, but today’s fantastic planets absorb some of the malaise of their model. Witness the two partial towers that deform Ambergris’ skyline, a sinister stamp of the Grey Caps’ takeover and an early sign that VanderMeer’s project yearns for a harder edge than all the battered fedoras and tense interrogation scenes can ultimately deliver.
For all that Neil Gaiman has done to popularize the metaphysical model that refuses to dispense with earthly angst, the sui generis of this strain is British writer and fantasist Michael Moorcock, who, beginning in the 1960s, made a career out of reversing the expectations of his genre. His hero Elric was practically a Conan parody, an unlikable weakling whose amorality was unsurprisingly appealing to many a bloody-minded schoolboy. Frequently locating his anti-heroes within the streams of carefully fetishized history almost entirely removed from context -- his Nomad of the Time Streams survives flashes of Nazi chic by being set in an alternate arrangement of Axis and Allies -- Moorcock often arrived at unusually literate adventure stories safely sealed from all that was not themselves. His heirs, however, tend to come off more as science fiction fans than science fiction writers. A sprinkle of Lovecraft to lure in the horror crowd, a few deft allusions to literary fiction to settle the conscience of slummers, plus a coating of political dissent, and you’ve got a modest assemblage of playful, self-distancing neo-fantasy that runs the gamut in terms of quality. VanderMeer’s exceptional service to slipstream (etc) is undercut: the more the real world intrudes, the more his saints and madmen devolve into something that seems more like exercise (or tribute) than innovation.
One thing is certain: the addition of noir (a flavor so subjective, it’s more an attitude than a genre) is one burden too many on VanderMeer’s already considerable stack of referents. Threatening mystery men blur together, dime novel dialogue proves a poor vehicle for the kind of exposition vast unreality requires, gun-toting detectives suddenly start sword fighting and (as usual) the female characters are detached from most conceivable stirrings of the intellect. And then, three-fourths of the way through, a plot twist effectively undoes the new ground proposed by the first chapters and returns Finch to the Ambergris of past volumes. Worse, in place of clues toward a plain-sight solution, the characters obtain what amounts to a copy of VanderMeer’s previous book, Shriek: An Afterward. That’ll clear things right up. As an entry in an expanding canon (both the Ambergris cycle and this newfangled “urban fantasy” at large), Finch is an acceptable, perhaps inevitable, chain-link. But as a standalone experiment in genre, it betrays itself when, having exhausted its ability to extend influence, it turns, fungus-like, to feed on its own remains.
Finch by Jeff VanderMeer