Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Capsule Review: Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer

Our regular reader may recall that I spoke of picking up Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground for cheaps the other day. It seemed like the sort of thing I’d dig and I’d been hearing plenty about it. Somebody even compared it (favourably, along with City Of Saints And Madmen) to The Gormenghast Trilogy, one of my favourite fantastical works.

It’s probably (no, definitely) bad form to do this, especially considering that I’m [GRATUITOUS CROSSLINKAGE CENSORED] myself, but the trick with me is that I’m just having a bit of fun, whereas Vandermeer seems to take himself very seriously indeed. The other trick with me is that I’m a cunt and things I say don’t matter.

The consensus from the Wall household (two humans and two felines) is that Veniss Undergound fucking sucks. I started the thing on a brief train trip from Malvern to Melbourne Central Station on Sunday, and had given up by the time we groaned into Richmond. The book begins (on page five, no less):

“Let me tell you why I wished to buy a meerkat at Quin’s Shanghai Circus.”

A decent enough opener, no doubt entirely compatible with the dictates of some creative writing teacher (strong contender for the most useless job on earth) in whatever suburb of Seattle it is that most closely resembles Footscray. But a chapter and a bit later we still haven’t learned why the protagonist wished to buy a meerkat. Or maybe we did, and my eyes had glazed over by that particular paragraph. We get several rambling passages about holo-art, and several more rambling, though ostensibly evocative, passages about the Canal District of the city of Ambergris. There’s some guy named Shadrach, who gives the protagonist directions. Apparently there are people called “geosurfers”. The narratory (!) timelines jump all over the place. I begin yawning and don’t stop until my head has folded back on itself.

It’s entirely possible that the book gets better. It might even get great. But in just over a chapter, or barely a dozen pages, Vandermeer has lost me. He’s created this steampunk-gothic city in the future that is less interesting than a drunken stroll along Collins Street at midnight, looking for somewhere discrete enough to throw up but public enough to hail a taxi. I got off the train at Melbourne Central, went up the mechano-stairs, walked right into Borders, and, with Veniss Underground in my pocket, effectively virgin, picked up a copy of Philip K. Dick’s A Maze Of Death, which I am enjoying somewhat. I met my wife so we could head off to a friend’s gig together, and I handed the Vandermeer to her, thinking she might like it.

She started it this afternoon on the train ride to work. Just now, walking through the door, she threw it on top of a pile of books that I still haven’t gotten around to taking to the op shop. “An annoying wanker,” she declared (I paraphrase). “I powerwalked home just to get it out of my bag.” Now, my wife can stomach crap writing a lot easier than I can. She loves Clive Barker and wants to keep that big Susan Faludi book that I keep telling her to get rid of. She can read pretty much anything, even if she doesn’t really like it. For her not to tolerate Veniss Underground casts a very dim light on it indeed.

I read my fair share of rubbish too. I just finished In Death Ground by David Weber and some other guy, and it’s just six-hundred pages of spaceship battles. A child could have written it. Hell, I could have written it. But it was fucking great and I kept reading it until it stopped. I won’t pick it up ever again and I won’t ever recommend it to anybody and, six months from now, I will deny ever having heard of it. But it’s a pulp science fiction story that doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and the authors go with the flow. Vandermeer writes like he is wading through flashbacks of every Twilight Zone episode he ever saw, and every Nine Inch Nails song he ever heard, and every game of Shadowrun that he ever played, and every essay on Blade Runner set design that he ever read, trying to assemble it into something coherent. But his scattered imagination outstrips his ability, and in the end, Veniss Underground is just a great big confused mess of fucking boring. I have City Of Saints And Madmen sitting here too. I shan’t be opening it. It’s yours for a kiss.


At 1:57 AM, Blogger desirina said...

Hi, I surfed in from metaxu. As someone who recently read Veniss Undergound and loved it, I wanted to offer a different opinion (hope that's not too presumptuous). The first part is very jumbled, but I think it's worth reading past that first section. I don't how much you ended up reading of the book, so forgive me if you already know this. But, the book is divided up into three narrators. The first narrator IS kind of a wanker (or was that the book you were referring to? ) and doesn't really have much to do in the actual story, besides causing all the trouble. The second and third narrators get increasingly readable (or at least that was my experience) and the real subjectivity of the story seems to rest with the last narrator.
Anyway, your description of Vandeermeer's writing style makes it sounds pretty bad (every NIN song!), so maybe it's a lost cause. But I'd give it a chance beyond the first section. And if you still hate it maybe I could take you up on that kiss for City of Saints.

At 3:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL! I shouldn't comment, probably, but...the first section is meant to be jumbled. The narrator's a fucking loser who couldn't write his way out of a paperbag.

For those who have objections to the first part, I always tell them--skip to the Shadrach section and then fill in the first two sections when it becomes clear where they fit in, because both part 1 and part 2 actually take place during part 3.

Martin Lake

At 5:34 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Man, a dozen pages and you write the book off? Harsh. I can't really argue with you because I haven't read any Vandermeer, but I have City of Saints here and will be interested to see if I like it.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Thanks for the tips, Desirina and Martin. It certainly sounds like the book improves, but I can't help but wonder why Vandermeer would make the first part irritating on purpose. Perhaps he was already relying on his reputation? Regardless, he might be the most technically proficient author alive, but those first pages are crucial because that's where he's supposed to sell the story to me. Had I read them before buying the book, five dollars or not, I would have saved my cash. I haven't the time to fight with my sensibilities while reading a book, especially not when I've got such highly-respected literary classics as Niven and Pournelle's Footfall to get through!

At 10:19 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Desirina: Incidentally, yes, you can have City, and I'll forefit the kiss for the time being. Just email me your postal address. So long as you're not in Istanbul or something it shouldn't cost too much to post. Unless it does, in which case I won't.

At 3:51 AM, Blogger desirina said...

Awesome! That is so nice of you. I feel bad making you pay for postage though. I will email you. Maybe I can paypal for you the postage.


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