Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why I Stopped Reading City of Saints and Madmen

I have heard nothing but praise for Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, and I wanted to read the book for several years now. Only problem is that my library only had City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris, a shorter edition published by Cosmos Books. After a couple of years I gave in and grabbed The Book of Ambergris from the library.

The collection opens with “Dradin, In Love” and from the start I was disappointed.

I think this is a case of Vandermeer’s style just not working for me. Obviously, Jeff Vandermeer is a talented writer. He has a World Fantasy Award on his shelf, Michael Moorcock wrote the introduction to this collection, and pretty much anywhere I go online I see high profile praise for Vandermeer whenever his work is mentioned. People like his work.

I couldn’t get in to it.

“Dradin, In Love” is written in a curious mix of present tense and past tense (at least at the start of the story, I didn’t notice it after a couple of pages) and Vandermeer works his descriptions of Ambergis in such a way that the stank of the city comes alive and off the page. But, the story *feels* description heavy to me. There are little tidbits I liked in how Vandermeer built Ambergris with the story, the mushroom dwellers, the book store, the chase / doublecross at the end of the story. There is much to admire here, but I was never in a position where I wanted more from the story and instead, I had to force myself to keep reading.

I started the second story, “An Early History of Ambergris”, which is written exactly like what you would expect from the title – as a history – complete with absurd footnotes. I like the footnotes, but this is where I checked out.

What this means is that I’m missing the World Fantasy Award winning novella “The Transformation of Martin Lake”. In an intellectual sense I would like to read the story someday, but I’ve completely checked out of Ambergis and though I’m two thirds of the way through the collection, I’m done.

I know that City of Saints and Madmen was skillfully constructed, and I appreciate the construction of this collection more than I did The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but this impressive work of imagination is not at all for me.


Anonymous said...

I am among those who loved the book... But not unconditionally.

I felt Dradin was too description-heavy, just like you did - and I usually hate descriptions and skip them. In this case, it would have meant skipping the whole thing, so I stuck around and, surprinsingly, liked it. Then, as praised as Martin Lake is... still not my favorite. Interesting, but I wouldn't want to re-read it.

What fascinated me was the rest of the book. I think the ideas behind Ambergris are brilliant and 'A Short History' had the right amount of humor and adeventure and mystery to make me love it. And leave me craving for more info on the grey caps...

I found 'The Strange Case of X' also very interesting, because it blends some details from the author's real life with the fictional world... and I love a riddle.

Also, my edition had a bunch of extra... things. The four novellas only made up half the book, and the rest was so ingenious I loved it. Story within story, art, fake medical report... even the glossary was so fun.

I'm not trying to convince you of anything, of course, just stating my reasons, since we seem to have the same dislike of lengthy descriptions. If you ever give the rest of the book a shot one day I'll be curious to know what you think.

Joe said...

I get exactly what you're saying and I can see why you liked it. There is a great mix of humor with the storytelling.

I suspect City of Saints and Madmen really rewards those who take the time to delve deeply into the text and see all the clever stuff Vandermeer is doing.

I just couldn't get that far into it.

Who knows, if that fuller edition comes available in my library (or mailbox), I may give it another go and see if it is one of those works that doesn't hit the first time I try to read it, but really delivers the second.

Unknown said...

Okay, that's two in a row that you didn't like.

I hope you like the next one. I've run into bad streaks like that; it's no fun.

Joe said...

CB: Well, I'm a hundred pages into Scott Westerfeld's Pretties, I have Reaper's Gale on deck, and I'm about to start Nancy Kress's Dogs.

I should be safe with that lineup.

If not, I'll grab my review copy of Sly Mongoose and I KNOW I'll love that one. 'Cause Buckell's the bomb.

Daniel Ausema said...

It's one of my favorite books...but I too wasn't sold on it by "Dradin." I didn't dislike it, but it didn't completely draw me in--I remember loving little details about the city and characters without being fully taken with the story as a whole.

What really got me to love it, bizarre as it may seem, was "Early History"--there was this playfulness to it that really connected with me. "Martin Lake" is the highlight of the collection/mosaic novel...but I'm not sure I would have liked it as much as I did if I hadn't already been sold by the history.

So perhaps not a bad call to let it lie for a while, but do think about going back to it sometime. I initially read only the edition you had because that was what the library had. The additional stuff in later editions is fun too, but I don't think there's anything in it that would change your mind if you didn't already enjoy the earlier stuff.