By Jeff VanderMeer (Tor Books, 2006)
Shriek: An Afterword is a book of books. In its setting and some elements of its plot, it is a work of fantasy about a surreal city called Ambergris. It is also a personal drama, as its literary narrative style mixes — sometimes sentence for sentence — the conflicting voices of two talented and argumentative siblings, Janice and Duncan Shriek. But Shriek also blends two nonfiction genres that, to my knowledge, have never before met: tell-all memoir and environmental history. The latter, less familiar than the former, is the scholarly study of the environment as an instrument, object, and agent of historical change. Environmental history is my field of study, and VanderMeer has taken it to the level of the fantastic.
Duncan Shriek is a historian whose intrepidness and iconoclasm both inspire and lead to his downfall. In Ambergris, historians hold powerful sway in public culture and discourse, in part because interpretations of history hold vital implications for the present and future. Duncan’s first books whet the public’s appetite for local history. But then he breaks Ambergris’s greatest taboo by delving too deeply into a chapter of the city’s past long buried in denial. Centuries ago, the founders of Ambergris ousted the Gray Caps, its “original inhabitants,” and most scholars gloss the incident as, well, ancient history. However, by scouring old texts and the city’s secret underground, Duncan discovers that a Gray Cap resistance has long been building just out of sight. This disturbing theory is most unwelcome and — combined with an affair with a student — it destroys Duncan’s credibility at the very moment when Ambergris needs to hear his message.
Although Duncan is the historian, VanderMeer tells most of the story in the voice of Janice, sometime art promoter, war correspondent, and defender of her younger brother. Years later, after Duncan has disappeared in pursuit of the truth, she sits down at a typewriter in a shell-shocked tavern to set the record straight about the parallel falls of the Shrieks and their beloved city. Janice is a quintessential unreliable narrator: Jealous and bitter, she spews bile at Mary Sabon, Duncan’s former student and lover who rejected his theories to become Ambergris’s new favorite historian. But we trust her when she describes the damp night when Duncan stumbled through her door with tangible evidence of the Gray Caps’ plans: a multicolored fungus that, in the course of his research, had colonized his entire body.
VanderMeer populates Ambergris’s environment with characters I would love to investigate: the Gray Caps; bizarre mushrooms evolving in an underground lair; the Shrieks themselves, with their friends and enemies; and most of all, the city’s damp, foreboding, and spore-filled air. My colleagues and I write about everything from the construction of New Orleans in a mosquito-laden wetland to conflicts over wildlife between Euro- and Native Americans. But we rarely have the opportunity to weave family scandal and melodrama into our histories, and our archival work seldom reveals a new environmental agent that poses such a direct threat to an unsuspecting city.
I don’t only love this book because it glorifies my profession, however; it is also an exploration of the role of history in our lives and our world, and the ways that denial, both personal and collective, can color the way we look at the past. At the level of memoir, VanderMeer shows us a brother and sister struggling with the truth of their own personal histories. At the level of environmental history, we see a city denying its own past despite the living clues in the landscape. But in VanderMeer’s world, history is denied at great peril, as it really can get under the skin — sometimes literally.
Dawn Biehler teaches in the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is working on an environmental history of urban pests.