Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

Finch is in a pinch.
Sold himself to mold,
Will he fold
or be rebellious and bold?
Finch is no cinch.

My poor attempt at Seussian poetry illustrates multiple aspects of Finch by
Jeff VanderMeer (US, Canada, Indiebound). Dr. Seuss is brilliant, his creations beyond strange, and upon reflection, more than a bit creepy. VanderMeer’s Finch is brilliant, his creations beyond strange, and it takes absolutely no reflection to be creeped out. Likewise, the protagonist, Finch, is indeed in a pinch – between several rocks a few hard places – or more correctly, between several competing interests and a spongy, fungal world that rots you from within rather than smashing you outright.

Finch is the final volume in the Ambergris Cycle, a trilogy of books that span the history of Ambergris, a wonderful and horrific second-world city, beginning with City of Saints and Madmen (
US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, my review) and continuing with Shriek: An Afterward (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound). While Finch does complete the thematic cycle, it also stands on its own, apart in form and function from the rest – probably the most benign introduction to Ambergris of the three.

At its core, Finch is a standard noir detective story. John Finch is the disillusioned, cynical detective with a dark and mysterious past who is assigned an unsolvable murder case by his seemingly evil Gray Cap boss. The case with ramifications beyond Finch’s imagination draws the attention of spies, mobsters, rebel forces, indigenous insurgents, loyalists and the government.

The city of Ambergris has been in the grip of hostile third party known as the Gray Caps for seven years that took control in the chaos created by long-time civil war. Finch leaves his old identity behind and survives as a reluctant detective in the employ of the tyrannical government in the surveillance society of a ruined city. Questionable loyalties, double-crosses, triple-crosses, historical consequences, foreign lands, torture, death all await Finch as he struggles to solve his last case.

Only VanderMeer’s vision of noir takes an entirely different form with the setting of Ambergris. Gray Caps aren’t human – they are intelligent fungal-based life forms of undetermined origins. They are either evil – or at least so alien that they seem evil. They have control over other fungal-based life forms – they can ‘see’ what the population is doing through fungal ‘cameras’, they drug the population with fungal drugs, buildings can completely decay under fungal onslaught in only days, humans can be infected with fungus that turns them into tools of the Gray Caps that are something more and less than human, and any fungal infection can be horrifyingly fatal. Humans are slowly being exterminated – either through death or conversion to fungal-hybrids. Rebel forces fight for survival and foreign interests interfere – selfishly seeking advanced technology while sometimes aiding in the fight against the Gray Caps.

Always stylistic, VanderMeer’s writing takes some getting used to. In Finch, VanderMeer uses short, choppy sentences. Connectors are absent, sentences fragmented – but what’s left is focused and often powerful. The style was a bit hard to adjust to and very noticeable at the beginning, but it didn’t take too long for me to fully adjust and appreciate it (I couldn’t help but wonder at how difficult this would be to edit – in my uncorrected proof, was it an error or style?).

This is Finch’s book – we only see the world through is point of view. The reader is left with the need to trust his interpretations and conclusions – his blind spots are our blind spots. Finch has a troubled past that slowly reveals itself as the novel progresses and he is shaped by what he encounters in the investigation. His distrust and hatred of the Gray Caps increases, his self delusions fluctuate, and the ever-present fungal assault on Ambergris haunts him. Finch is introspective, tough, lonely, imperfect, and a reluctant (anti)hero. Finch is the classic noir detective.

As typical of VanderMeer’s writing, deep thematic elements abound. The commentary seems to be aimed at society, government, and the consequences of one’s actions, but it’s so well integrated into the story and Ambergris itself, it doesn’t stand out and is open to layers of interpretation.

Finch answers many of the mysteries posed in the first two books of the Ambergris Cycle while standing well enough on its own to introduce new readers to Ambergris. I must be described as noir though the setting of Ambergris sets it apart – is it fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, a political thriller, noir, fungalpunk? Is it all of the above, none of the above? Finch is what you make of it – for me, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. 9/10

Will Finch, the not cinch, be spore gore?

Related Posts:
Review of City of Saints of Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer Answers Questions Five


Brian said...

Hee hee. you can tell that your child is now of a certain age. That makes me laugh.

I did love Finch though. The staccato style of prose with certain words omitted is called telegraphic prose (honed to perfection by James Ellroy) and I think that it is a style not too often, if ever really, seen in the SF/F genre but those of us who read hard-boiled tales fall into it's rhythms pretty easily.

Brian L. from BSC (always lurking but not always commenting)

Neth said...

Thanks Brian - I only read hard-boiled/noir stories on occasion, so it's not a style I'm readily familiar with. It certainly fits well with Finch.

Yeah, my son is now 2 and I end up with all kinds of things stuck in my head. The songs are the worst - though Seuss gets tiresome quick when stuck in one's brain.


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