Sometimes when reading a book I get feeling that I could be a writer – in other words I’m inspired by thoughts that I could write a book just as good as the one I’m reading. This would be like watching things on TV and thinking similar thoughts – such as someone who hasn’t really played golf thinking that it looks pretty easy after watching the pros. Of course it’s not that easy, but the thoughts come none the less. This is not the feeling I got when reading City of Saints and Madmen. This collection of stories is brilliant work that I could never dream of approaching. I periodically realized that I was in awe of various elements of these stories – an emotion that only the best books and writers can bring out in me. Questions in my mind included ‘how did he come up with that’ and ‘could a sane man write this’. Then VanderMeer takes things to a new level – he actually addresses some of these questions in disturbingly wonderful ways.
City of Saints and Madmen is the exploration of the city of Ambergris, an incredibly realized city of VanderMeer’s creation. The first short story begins with a young and disillusioned missionary, Dradin, searching for a new beginning in the great city. Following stories include the early history of Ambergris as told by a historian, the origin of the city’s greatest artist’s inspiration, an interrogation of a writer, a publication describing the habit of the King Squid, and more. The stories are darkly funny, disturbing, connected in interesting ways, and always more than meets the eye.
This collection of stories can be enjoyed on several different levels – many of which are simply beyond me. Can someone of my background truly appreciate the shifting voice and perspective of these stories? Do I really have a chance of fully realizing the symbolic elements contained within? No – yes this is me admitting that on some level ‘I don’t get it’; but I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy those elements or the stories themselves. VanderMeer’s visual writing echoes our own world to a degree that anyone can relate to – these stories are experienced as a visceral reaction as much as an intellectual one.
City of Saints and Madmen won’t appeal to everybody. This mosaic novel shifts voice, style, and even font without the benefit of a central narrative to bind. Stories range from more traditional modes to fictionalized scientific journals to literary criticisms. The stories are dark reflections of the world we live in, self realizations of a disturbing sort. Ambergris is a fascinatingly horrific city that takes its toll on writers and readers alike. I absolutely loved it, though I suspect I'm developing a phobia of fungus.
On my 10-point scale (described in detail here), City of Saints and Madmen rates an 8.5. Read it so we can discuss the merits of squidology and other oddities – but then I once read The Search for the Giant Squid : The Biology and Mythology of the World's Most Elusive Sea Creature for fun; I found VanderMeer’s squid-centric city to be…captivating.