Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's "The Goat Variations" and "Three Days in a Border Town"

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 —an NHR contributor, among many, many other things—asked me if I'd contribute to a on VanderMeer's new short-story collection, , 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. 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.

Shriek: An Afterword

By Jeff VanderMeer (Tor Books, 2006)

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 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 . She is working on an environmental history of urban pests.