One of the abiding pleasures of writing books, and being lucky enough to have them published, is the way in which they have led me to discover parts of the literary world I may not have discovered otherwise. Among them is a brand of science fiction and fantasy that's been given all kinds of labels—my favorite is the New Weird—but basically boils down to books in which many strange and interesting things happen, and in which the writing is really, really good. My running favorite author in this group, which makes him one of my favorite living authors, period, is Jeff VanderMeer, a prolific and vastly talented writer perhaps best known for his books about a fantastical, decaying, and distinctly postcolonial city called Ambergris. In these books, VanderMeer displays not only an astonishingly rich imagination, but also a pretty ridiculous command of numerous fiction styles, from quasi-Borgesian to hard-boiled noir. His books are social, political, personal: everything I want in fiction. If I were the competitive type, I'd say he's the man to beat. Which is why when Matthew Cheney—an NHR contributor, among many, many other things—asked me if I'd contribute to a series of reviews on VanderMeer's new short-story collection, The Third Bear, I was all over it.
I said before that one of the things I like so much about VanderMeer's writing is his deft mixture of the social, political, and personal. "The Goat Variations," which Kevin Brockmeier singled out for praise in his blurb of The Third Bear, accomplishes this to great effect, as the leaders of a nation falling apart at the seams catch wind that a calamity is coming, but don't know how to stop it. Oh, right—this story also involves alternate realities and time travel, which makes for a really heady mixture. Conceptually, VanderMeer sets up a very difficult task, that of writing directly about George W. Bush without hitting us over the head, and yet still giving the story teeth. He might not quite get away with it; there's still a sense that VanderMeer's too close, that there hasn't been quite enough time to digest it all. I say this with humility, though: I would have been a bit frightened to even attempt to write a short story like this, and certainly wouldn't have done as well. And the story still has plenty of teeth, as I find myself returning in my mind to VanderMeer's vivid image of George W. at the beginning of his administration, bludgeoned by catastrophe, the world as he knows it ending all around him, and him just not knowing what to do.
And then there's "Three Days in a Border Town," which is one of the best pieces of short fiction I've read in years; it's no wonder it showed up on awards and best-of lists when it was published in 2004. In it, a sharpshooter moves through a dusty border town in the middle of a desert, looking for her husband, but it's about so much more than that. It's about devastating loss, hovering just beyond the horizon; it's about figuring out how to move on. Matthew Cheney has said why this story is amazing as well as anyone, and he's right. It's Beckett, it's the better end of Dennis Lehane (particularly the short story "Until Gwen," with which it shares a narration written, with wild success, in the second person), and it's VanderMeer at his best, precise and luminous, transporting and transfiguring. "Three Days in a Border Town" is the kind of story that seems to take in the whole world, to be about everything at once, and it shows that when VanderMeer's writing at the top of his game—which is pretty much all the time—it's foolish to talk about beating him, because you can't.