Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

(This review is littered with spoilers. I do not believe they “give away” the text, but I thought you should know.)

In a sane world, an Afterword is no more and no less than reflection upon that which went before, perhaps, or an apology for the lack of nachos. [All good things have nachos.] In Shriek: An Afterword [otherwise known as “‘An Afterword to the Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of Ambergris’ by Janice Shriek (and Duncan Shriek)”] by Jeff VanderMeer we find an attempt at interpretation, at tribute, at biography; we find hasty and untempered, unthinking reaction; we find a superfluosityof verbiage. As the previous sentence shows, I have nothing against verbosity, per se. As it might not show, I have little patience with verbal masturbation when performed by people not me.

Where to begin? (At the beginning?) Duncan Shriek’s sister, former art critic/leader, current tour guide Janice Shriek writes an afterword. But really it is an attempt to explain her brother, and perhaps interpret him. Or support him. Who can tell? Janice’s prose, especially in the first third of Shriek, is unrelievedly turgid. Janice writes her afterword and then… disappears from the text. Duncan finds the text [interesting in and of itself – neither sibling is present while the other is writing] and proceeds to insert his comments and reactions to what Janice has said before him. Duncan’s interventions do not help me tolerate Janice’s boring pomposity, because he is no different, and perhaps he is worse.

Why does Duncan need an Afterword, anyway? As readers of City of Saints and Madmen might know, Janice and Duncan live in the city of Ambergris. Duncan is – or was – a historian, and his specialty lies in the study of the grey caps – fungal beings who lived in Ambergris before humans came along and took over, and who are Coming Back, or Never Left. [Hooray for imperialism, yes?] Duncan’s study is controversial. It’s like being a scientist who supports creationism. Only he’s right, and everyone else is wrong. And no one believes him, except for a bunch of crackpots – and his sister.

Janice’s rambling narrative is non-linear but seemingly extremely purposeful. Her attempt is to clarify – for herself? for her potential readers? – as much of her brother’s mission as she was on hand to witness. She wades through the hints her brother gave her through their lifetimes, hazards questions into those aspects of his life of which she is ignorant. It is, in its way, a very loving, if very resentful, account. It holds to some degree of honesty – to purpose, if not to completion.

Into this exploration Duncan explodes with all the grace of a football fan in a china shop. Duncan, so far as I can make out, is disturbed at the thought of someone speaking for him. Duncan cannot bear that not only is someone speaking for and of him, but that someone’s opinion of him is not always very positive. In the insertions – Duncan’s afterword to Janice’s afterword – there is, more often than not, nothing more than aggressive defensiveness, a need to overpower Janice’s voice with his own. [A significant number of the reviews I read see Janice as being of little account. Why should they? Duncan has stamped himself over her text.] His insertions are knee-jerk reactions, screaming Don’t touch me. Disdainful, didactic, Duncan’s voice drowns out Janice’s, leaving his life, his personality and his persona as unexamined as it is now possible to make them.

Well. Defensiveness and knee-jerk attacks are a normal thing, after all. Perhaps Duncan’s true sin is that he is not reading the text he so violently intrudes upon. Often his responses to Janice are hasty, often they clearly miss her meaning and condemn her for uncommitted sins.

Often, I believe, he lies. Ah well.

[I save this space for my unformed thoughts on an important aspect of Janice’s character – she was suicidal, and is depressed. Partly due to the dual nature of the narrative, and partly due to a characterised embarrassment/reticence/smoke-screen insouciance, I think this does not get the exploration it deserves and warrants, and I believe we see it in the harshest light possible. I want more. But this novel rarely gives me what I want.]

Between Duncan’s roarings and Janice’s seeking lie spectral characters who make and break both siblings. There’s Mary Sabon, the “villainess” of the piece, the ex-lover-now-historian who opposes Duncan’s study at every turn. There’s Sirin, editor, who alternately supports and hurts the Shrieks according to his whim. There’s Bonmot, once-disgraced priest. Sybel, drug-supplier, manager, friend… Present or missing, these people are one-dimensional nothings who may or may not have any relevance to the text at all, save that the Shrieks are their friends.

[Save for Mary Sabon, who must – must lie somewhere between the siblings’ radically different yet ultimately antagonistic views of her.]

Duncan’s voice is the strongest in this text – mostly because his is the last voice left sounding, his is the afterword we are reading. [Janice is writing about him.] Between Duncan’s insistence on belittling his sister, his allowance of his sister’s belittling of Mary and his dismissal of his mother’s own artistry, there is room for me to wonder why this novel is so keen on making sure that Women Should Not Do Art. Or Scholarship. They Are Bad At It, And When They Are Good They Threaten Honest, Heroic Men Who Are Just Trying To Reveal The Truth. Poor Duncan. So surrounded by women who lie about him, or don’t love him enough.

Filtered through the prosey Shrieks, the novel reveals the accelerating encroachment of the “grey caps” upon the city that was once theirs – both the novel and the city undergo what the siblings would call a “strangification”. [Really, the Shriek filter is most annoying, I wish Duncan would get off his arse and simply tell us what is happening rather than hint like an annoying publicist who thinks mystery makes a better campaign than teasers. And I wish Janice knew more, she’d tell us, albeit in the most heavy and flamboyant way possible.] How the Ambergrisians continue to ignore this is beyond the Shrieks and beyond me.

The novel does have its good points. The Nabokovian dual-narrator is an excellent study in characterisation [however unpleasant and boring those two characters might be]. There are some beautiful renderings on the publishing Industry [within Ambergris, and therefore in our world too], and the question of Who Decides Art? At one point there’s a civil war. Over rival publishing houses. What happens when those two opposing sides are attacked from a third and fourth front, and again and again and again? Who Rules Art? Who Speaks? There are times when Duncan and Janice speak in harmony, one voice extending the other, and very nice it is too. Calm after storms.

By the time the novel winds down to its ambiguous fungal ending, I am tired and irritated. Ambergris is a delight, its narrators are not. Shriek: An Afterword is perhaps more critic’s fare than reader’s. I liked it not.


5 responses to “Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. I appreciate the long review. Doesn’t matter to me if it’s positive or negative.

    One thing you are utterly and completely wrong about and because it begins to reflect on author character and thus is personal, I have to respond to. And it’s this:

    “there is room for me to wonder why this novel is so keen on making sure that Women Should Not Do Art. Or Scholarship. They Are Bad At It, And When They Are Good They Threaten Honest, Heroic Men Who Are Just Trying To Reveal The Truth.”

    This is such a gross misreading of the novel that I can only assume you have never heard of ambiguity, of irony, or of misdirection.

    Who ever said Duncan was a hero? Certainly not me. You take the protagonists at face value–you believe those who should not be believed–and then you make me out to be either an anti-feminist or simply a plain old misogynist.

    The novel is not “telling” you anything of the kind. The novel doesn’t tell you anything at all. It leaves it up to you to determine.

    Anyway, besides that character assassination, I appreciate the fact that despite not liking the novel you read the whole thing and wrote a thoughtful short essay about it.


    Jeff VanderMeer

  2. coolingpearls

    Dear Jeff VanderMeer:

    First of all, it is really, really cool that you actually responded! Thank you. 🙂

    I do not believe that a novel necessarily reflects on its author’s character. I think that Duncan+Janice’s text together allows a reading that is misogynistic. Janice doesn’t like herself (as an artist or as a person); her mother doesn’t commit to her art, even by Janice’s interpretation; Mary Sabon is… unable to see. There’s a Something there, and I have to look at it *somehow*. My reading isn’t the final word on the subject, but it *is* mine.

    And it’s my reading of the words on the page, no more, no less.

    It doesn’t mean – for me, anyway – that its author, or all the people who gave it positive reviews, are Misogynists or Male Chauvinist Pigs or unconscious abusers of that strange phantasm called male privilege.

    It is true that you do not refer to Duncan as a hero, but you are not the person speaking in the novel. Janice and Duncan supply the “I”s – and my reading of Duncan, like many other reviewers, is that he is a fully-realised character. For me, that fully-realised character thinks of himself as a Hero. Not necessarily a Sword-And-Shield Hero, but definitely a Truth-Finding sort. Suffering for it, too. Heroically. Turning others away from his pain(grotesqueness?). It’s quite admirable, really. However much of yourself you may put into your characters, in the final analysis they are their own people.

    I think a text – the words on the page – which has one voice continually condemning the other, and then an epilogue which suggests death for the condemned and existence for the condemner is saying Something. As a reader, I have interpreted this in terms of whose is the stronger voice, both in terms of longevity and in finality.

    I’m very sorry if my thoughts on the novel seemed to be a personal attack. And I realise that even though my remarks are not against you they might seem that way – it *is* your novel, you *made* it.

    And there we are.

    Thank you again for coming here, and for commenting.

  3. This is a very interesting reading. The idea that Duncan was bashing Janice vicariously through his commentary didn’t occur to me – mostly because Janice is boring and Duncan is less so, and I was therefore willing to tolerate his dominance. You’re right, though, that he genuinely resents her attempts to understand him and explain him to others.

    There aren’t a lot of major female characters in VanderMeer’s fiction – Janice is joined, I believe, only by Nicola in Veniss Underground. Nicola is portrayed positively, but she’s also described as a linear thinker, who colors within the lines. In a dying city, she’s doing her small part to prop up the system, as opposed to her flamboyant, doomed brother and soulful former lover. She’s a better person than either of them, but less exciting, and her ultimate fate is determined by their actions.

  4. Duncan’s commentary is flamboyant and emotional – the man I see waves his arms a lot. It’s arresting. One can’t help but pay attention to him. (Was your review up at Strange Horizons?)

    Is Nicola another form of Janice? Janice is a fairly linear thinker with a brother whom she sees as flamboyant and a – I cannot remember if she and he were lovers, but certainly she loved Sybel and he… exploded.

    I do want to read Veniss Underground. I think that so strong a reaction against a book means I might have opposingly strong reactions for another by the same writer in a different context.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Was your review up at Strange Horizons?

    Yes. I think it has the distinction of being the first, and for a long time only, negative review the novel received.

    There are some similarities between Nicola and Janice, but only in very broad terms. As I said, Nicola is portrayed more positively than Janice. She’s smarter, more serious, and less self-destructive. The most important difference between the two characters is that Veniss Underground seems to be Nicola’s side. Her brother is also domineering (albeit in different ways than Duncan’s) but that tendency is criticized, and the novel’s conclusion is that she needs to separate herself from him.

    I quite liked Veniss Underground. In fact, Shriek is the only novel by VanderMeer I haven’t liked, though I think his masterpiece remains City of Saints and Madmen.

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