33. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer (2004) 660 p.

mostly madmen

Jeff VanderMeer is another author who was unknown to me, having randomly picked this book off the shelves at Pulp Fiction, and so I spent the first quarter of this very strange book growing accustomed to his world. City of Saints and Madmen is ostensibly a fantasy novel, set in the bizarre city of Amergris, but the stories range so frequently across the city’s fictional history that they range from involving barbarian invaders in swords and armour, to featuring trains, telephones and television. There is also some crossover with the real world, making things even more confusing.

It’s a very richly detailed world, and one which VanderMeer doesn’t explicitly explain to you. Which is fine by me – my hatred for spoonfeeding is a matter of public record. What I was able to gather by the end of it was that Amergris is a city under threat, founded atop a society of subterranean mushroom-like people known as “grey caps,” and subsequently suffering from unexplained problems with fungal growth. It is widely suggested that the grey caps will one day retake the city, putting to an end the petty concerns of the priests, artists, writers, historians and scientists who are at the centre of these stories. I suppose City of Saints and Madmen is technically a book of short stories, the first half consisting of four slim novellas, the second half consisting of an “appendix,” containing everything from the scribblings of an asylum inmate to a pseudo-scientific pamphlet on the gigantic freshwater squid. I quite liked this format, with bits and pieces giving an insight into a larger city; while the subject matter sometimes became tedious (such as the squid pamphlet), the format ensured that it wouldn’t be too long before I was reading about something else entirely. Irritatingly, however, the appendix was without page numbers, making my “660” figure a rough estimate.

What VanderMeer excels at most is horror. While many of the stories heavily involve introspection, crises of art, self-doubt and the like, with characters that are neither particularly memorable nor likeable (with the exception of the historian Duncan Shriek), there are frequent instances of horror. Saints may be in short supply, but this is indeed a city of madmen, and not the kind of place you’d want to raise your kids. But for the reader, the best moments of City of Saints and Madmen are by far those that verge onto fear and terror: the psychotic orgy of rape and murder that inexplicably occurs during a festival, a blind woman who claims to have heard something rustling inside an empty cage left behind after a grey cap raid, or the circumstances of the fishing fleet early in the city’s history that returns one season to find the city completely deserted, its inhabitants having simply vanished. These parts of the book are like studs of chocolate in a cookie, rousing me out of the slumber induced by a story about an antique salesman or whatever and making me thoroughly enjoy the book for those few excellent pages.

When VanderMeer sticks to his strengths, and fills the reader with a sense of eerie dread, he’s great. Most of the time, however, City of Saints and Madmen is a fairly unremarkable wander through a bohemian metropolis with occasional hints at greater literary skill. It does, as always, get points for being a fantasy genre text that relies on imagination rather than on Tolkien, but as with any large collection of short stories, the ultimate grade is average: the good stories dragged down by the bad ones, the bad stories lifted up by the good ones. Nonetheless, VanderMeer is a decent writer, and I may keep an eye out for his other works.

Books: 33/50
Pages: 10, 389