Dec 7, 2009

Monkey droppings - Finch by Jeff Vandermeer: "I am not a detective. I am not a detective."

The monkey treks through a strange land where mushrooms hold sway over people and the spirit of Dashiell Hammett infects the most jaded of men.

Call it 'mushroom noir'.

Or maybe 'fungalpunk'?

'Spore gore'?

How about 'hard-boiled truffles'?

by Jeff Vandemeer
Underland Press
Another part of him looked down from a great height, puzzled. When did being a detective mean this? He was investigating a double murder. He was working for an occupying force that could make Stark disappear in a burst of dandelion-like spores. And he didn't have his shoes. He didn't have his socks. He didn't have his gun.
I don't know how it got its talons into me, but if there is one type of fiction that always gets my motor revving, it's the sci-fi/supernatural/fantasy novel mixed lovingly with healthy dollops of the tropes of detective/cop/noir mysteries. Did that sentence make sense? Probably not, but neither does my love for the mashup genre. Give me a Raymond Chandler mixed with Star Wars, and you've won my heart.

There are no words to describe my absolute enchantment with novels such as Falling Angel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Gun, with Occasional Music, Bone Song, and Asimov's Lije Baley series. I can easily sit through repeat viewings of Angel Heart, Blade Runner, Constantine, and Lord of Illusions, again and again falling easy prey to their pulpy charms. Clive Barker's noir PI Harry D'Amour is one of all alltime favourites, and the rumours that Barker is set to comingle D'Amour and the helltastic Cenobites in his long-delayed Scarlet Gospels have made me giddy for years now.

I just want you to understand my mindset when I'm confronted with such scenarios. And so you can understand that the concept of setting a gritty detective noir within the moist, claustrophobic confines of Jeff Vandermeer's world of Ambergris made me tingle in all sorts of indescribable but PG-rated ways. And the end result, Finch, is just what I wanted.

Ambergris, as set out in the award-winning author's multi-layered novel City of Saints and Madmen and his follow-up Shriek (unread by me, but hopefully not for long), is a city with a long and uneven relationship with a bizarre species known as gray caps. The best way to describe them would be 'sentient fungus.' The titular character John Finch describes the gray caps as "rows and rows of needle lines set into a face a little like a squished-in shark's snout. Finch couldn't tell if the lines were gills or teeth, but they seemed to flutter and breathe a little. Wyte said he'd seen tiny creatures in there, once." They are, by all accounts, desperately unpleasant creatures to be around, with "a touch like wet, dead leaves sewn together and stuffed with meat." They have also, by the time of Finch, completely taken over the city.

Before I get into the actual plot structure, I want to heartily congratulate Vandermeer on crafting one of the most unpleasantly atmospheric (in a good way) novels I've had the pleasure to read. Ambergris, as befits its fungal overlords, is a city of mould and mildew, of creeping tendrils and sweaty walls.
Inside, the lobby is dank and dim and molding. And old crooked photograph on the wall captures a few signs of the hotel's lost luxury in a scene from some long-ago party. A strain of pale green lichen has infiltrated the faded burgundy of the carpet. Gives the floor a spongy feel and sheds a disconcerting, ghostly glow that leads Finch through the entrance after dark.
Not since Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with its oppressive depiction of a world overrun by decay and kipple, have I felt the walls of a fictional world close about and suffocate me so effectively. It's perverse, but Ambergris is a a beautifully ugly city, and Vandermeer is a loving tour guide who does not shy away from the seedy back alleyways.

Stuck in this nightmarish world, the human citizens do their best to survive the new occupation. Some survive by becoming Partials, human/gray cap hybrids who "got an adrenaline rush from heightened powers of sight. Enhanced by fungal drugs autogenerated inside the eye."

Alternatively, humans work in coordination with the gray caps to keep order. One of these men is John Finch, a detective charged with keeping a modicum of order in a crumbling society. At the start of the tale, Finch is called in to examine the bodies of two beings, one human, one not, both discovered in strange positions in an old apartment. The rare appearance of a murdered gray cap is enough to clue in Finch (despite his personal mantra of "I am not a detective") that something beyond even the usual unusualness is going on:
Gray caps bled. Finch knew that. Not like a stream or a gout, even when you cut them deep, but a steady drip from a leaky faucet. Puncture wounds healed almost immediately. It took a long time and a lot of patience to kill a gray cap.
As the investigation proceeds, Finch and his partner Wyte (a man slowly disintegrating under an infection by spores) uncover a labyrinth conspiracy involving the plans of the gray caps and a planned rebel uprising. And throughout it all, Finch struggles with his place in Ambergris' history, both before the occupation and, hopefully, after.

Despite its fantastical trappings, Finch is hard-boiled noir through to its infected heart. Finch is the prototypical loner cop, hiding from his past and simply trying to survive (think Bogart's Rick Blaine mixed with his Marlowe). There are code words, and femme fatales, and dastardly criminals, and red herrings, and goons, and betrayals. There are also numerous blows to the head; John Finch may hold the record for most times knocked unconscious within seventy-two hours.

Finch may also be viewed as a subtle commentary on the dehumanizing nature of occupying forces in a foreign land; there are some distinct parallels to be made between Ambergris and the current situations in Iraq or Afghanistan, although Vandermeer is wise to keep such comparisons simmering beneath the surface. Finch is first and foremost a mystery thriller, set in an unearthly city so well-described it might as well be the next town over. Like the best detective stories, Finch does not offer easy explanations, and much that occurs is completely beyond the detective's realm of control. John Finch is both observer and participant, and if the ultimate ending is slightly confusing, it's only because all the pieces have not been made visible to him. But Vandermeer does not cheat; there are distinct codes and modes of thinking within Ambergris, and he is rigid in his understanding of its history and culture. Finch follows a obscure internal logic that may take more than one reading to fully comprehend. It does offer a note of hope by the end (although only of the bleakest sort), and it is gratifying to think that there may be more to come.

Make no mistake, Finch is not a mystery for everyone; it is dark, spooky ride with a gruesome, gory centre. And while a passing acquaintance with Vandermeer's previous excursions onto the streets of Ambergris is not essential, it does help. But for those with a love of the strange and the challenging (or if you simply want to visit a world of trenchcoats and tough, tough guys), Ambergris should be your next visit. Like the great detective novels of old, it demands repeat readings.


NOTE: And how wonderful it is that in the same year I come across two decidedly unique takes on the detective novel, Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection being the other.

EXTRA NOTE: For some Finch-related goodies (including the images scattered about this review), check out Finch's reader kit.


Lori L said...

I've completed Book 5 in the Critical Monkey Contest.
Star Wars: Rebel Dawn

(And I'm going to put Finch on my wish list)

Corey said...

Awesome. When I was a kid, I devoured the HAN SOLO novels by Brian Daley. I wonder how they hold up.

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