Veniss Underground is the first work of fiction by Jeff VanderMeer I've
read. He's been quietly producing a sizeable amount of shorter fiction in the
last ten years, and recently his name has begun appearing as the Next Big Thing
in the 'literary' science fiction circles. Much of this acclaim is coming courtesy
of his City of Saints
& Madmen, published by Prime Books in 2002, followed by a bloom of articles,
reviews, interviews, panels, squid-parades, and whatnot surrounding the publication
of this object: a notable amount of praise was being diverted to the
design of the book, while the words were described as having more than a little
in common with the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov and Edward Whittemore
-- the 'literary' end of fantastic fiction (which often has an unfortunate tendency
of being a repellant to the masses while critics and writers fall head over
heels for it). So to put it mildly, the name 'VanderMeer' came with extra baggage,
hefty expectations, and perhaps some trepidation: I don't have a lot of time
to read books and so I try to be careful with my picks. Veniss Underground is a very good pick.
Veniss. 'Like an adder's kiss.' Above the ground is a walled-in barely contained
chaos, a city-state like an island surrounded by vast deserts that were produced
by some ecological disasters, habitated by men, women, memories, art, obsessions,
love, and meerkats.
Underground. A submerged city, thirty levels down, once upon a time perhaps
part of the surface; a Bosch painting of grotesquerie and surreal invention,
genetic engineering run rampant, advanced technology slowly decaying along with
its ruling class of humanity.
In brief, Veniss Underground is a love story (but scratch out the gooey
from your mind, except for the excessive bodily fluids flowing in vast subterranean
cathedrals and out of blind eye sockets). The novel's three parts are respectively
in the first, second, and third persons. The first part features Nicholas, an
artist lacking in talent if not arrogance and ambition (a deadly combination)
who decides to join forces with Quin. Quin is an almost god-like bioengineer
with a wide but nasty reputation. Quin's view of the world does not exactly
match Nicholas', who quickly disappears from the face of the earth. Curious
and full of questions, Nicholas' twin sister Nicola gets involved and without
better judgment she stumbles across Quin and his 'Living Art'; genetic engineering,
mutant and mutated dna, forbidden science prescribed as art. Bad things happen
and soon we are underground, where Nicola's ex-lover Shadrach is forced to descend
in search for answers, questions, and, of course, meerkats.
Veniss Underground is an entertaining, action-packed story with real
characters that develop (or otherwise mutate) as the story progresses. The only
problem with the narrative I found were the numerous references to other authors
and artists. The intrusion of these in a very imaginative and original narrative
is at points jarring, and I wish VanderMeer had still further expanded his vision
by creating a completely new world with its own particular demons and deities.
Regardless, it is an astonishing and vividly written story with some of the
most hallucinogenic descriptions this side of Max Ernst. It comes across as
a slight anomaly that this is also a tough in-your-face action-adventure that
slithers with ease from a scene of grotesque horror to another by way of mind-enlargening
sur/real set pieces. It is a brilliantly visualized nightmare narrative that
sustains its momentum from the word go, providing enjoyment for those seeking
more esoteric joys as well as the casual reader hungry for a snortin' good time.
And it's parts are separated by quotations from Howe Gelb's Giant Sand, the
best band nobody has ever heard of. So what's not to like? Whatever baggage
VanderMeer's work comes with, it is carried effortlessly to the sunrise with
all three legs.