Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (2009) 334 p.
Finch is the most recent of three loosely connected books set in VanderMeer’s fictional fantasy city of Amerbgris, after City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. I couldn’t stand the second of those, so I put off reading this one for a while, and if I hadn’t already bought it I probably wouldn’t have bothered at all.
Finch is, fortunately, a step up from Shriek: An afterword. The first two books introduced us to the strange metropolis of Ambergris and the malevolent fungal creatures known as “grey caps” which have always lurked in the caves and caverns beneath the city. Finch takes place after a civil war between two merchant houses was interrupted by a full-scale grey cap uprising. Now, many years later, Ambergris is crumbling under occupation: citizens dead or interred in camps, entire neighbourhoods overtaken by fungal growth, the populace kept docile with mushroom drugs. Two enormous towers are being built, and the grey caps will not say what they are for or what will happen when they are complete.
The novel follows John Finch, a police officer, one of few remaining who still try to do their jobs even though that means working for the grey caps. Despite his protests that he is not a detective, Finch is assigned to a murder case in which a dead man and a dead grey cap are found in an apartment building, and is given only one week to solve the case.
Finch is easily the most fully-formed and complete of the Ambergris books; City of Saints and Madmen was a book of small pieces and short stories, and Shriek: An Afterword was also quite convoluted. Finch is a much more traditional novel in a structural sense, the chapters named after the days of the week as Finch tries to solve the case before the deadline. VanderMeer has, in this book, adopted a writing style that attempts to mimic the hardboiled prose style of 1930s detective novels:
Back at his desk with the other detectives. The must of fungal rot from the green strip of carpet running from the front door down the middle. The whole back of the room hidden by a curtain. Smell of bad coffee from the table that also housed their only typewriter. Shoved up against the far wall. Next to the holding cell.
Deliberately truncating sentences is as far as this mimicry extends; Finch is still wallowing in VanderMeer’s excessive exposition, as we are privy to every one of Finch’s mopey thoughts about his girlfriend or his old life or whatever. It’s not that I thought an atmosphere of melancholy was inappropriate, but rather that I just didn’t care about any of his characters or what was going to happen to them. VanderMeer has a brilliant imagination and has created an interesting fantasy world, but as is often the curse with such writers, he fails to populate that world with interesting or sympathetic characters. Nor is his story particularly engrossing, in spite of how well he paints the occupation of the city and the misery of the human survivors; it mostly involves Finch in the dark, chasing up leads through bizarre dreams and cartoonish mob villains, eventually uncovering what’s going to happen with the towers and saving the day with the resistance, or something. My interest and my attention were both waning at that point. Finch is the best book of the Ambergris trilogy, but that’s a low hurdle.
I should point out that this is a minority opinion. The back of the book is emblazoned with rave reviews from the Guardian, the Times, Lev Grossman, etc. Ambergris is certainly unique and different, so if the story sounds interesting to you, by all means check it out. I just personally didn’t enjoy sitting through three books of an author’s strange obsession with mushrooms.