Sunday Salon: Reading Schisms
This week I have been (still) listening to Murakami's Wind Up Bird Chronicle (it is a very long book), as well as reading several short stories by Balzac, including Vendetta, Red Inn and Domestic Peace on the Kindle. But today I decided to go back to paper and have spent the whole of Sunday finishing Finch by Jeff VanderMeer. This grew more and more absorbing - so much so that I couldn't pull myself away long enough to prepare any meals, and so Hodmandod Senior and Minor had to make do with ready meals instead.
Finch is the sort of novel that builds and builds - to a quite magnificent ending. As suggested by the rather wonderful cover it is set in a city which is partly bricks and mortar and partly fungal. The city is called Ambergris, and Finch is the latest installment of a series of books set in this fantastical place: City of Saints and Madmen (which is a huge 496 pages) and Shriek which I loved. City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of short stories (ha, a link with Balzac there perhaps, who also wrote a mammoth collection of stories featuring people of a city); Shriek explored the relationship between a brother and sister in the form of an annotated journal; whereas Finch is written in a rather more clipped style which reminded me of a detective's case book. This is how it starts: two bodies are found as though they have fallen from a great height (even though they are in an enclosed room) and Finch and his colleague are sent to investigate. But Finch is not a detective, as he is at pains to point out; and this novel is about more than a murder investigation. It is about Ambergris.
Ambergris, it seems to me, has a plot of its own. The history is forever convulsing, changing and gaining different meanings. Its recent past has been particularly tumultuous. There have been feuds, wars, invasions and something called the Silence. It is a clammy place. Buildings sometimes morph into mushrooms and fungus, and it seems that here decay is an active process. It will overpower and then take over and there is not much anyone can do to stop it. Then there are the people: Graycaps and some mysterious 'others' like Finch's girlfriend, Sintra (and also the hint at the end that Finch may be partly one of these 'others' himself).
The descriptions of the characters and the places within Ambergris are vivid, highly imaginative and unusual - and yet convincing too. Half way through the book a character from a previous novel makes an appearance and the way he is incorporated into the plot is clever and thought-provoking. It adds yet more layers to the Ambergrisian history.
Then there is Finch himself, and his evolving relationship with Wyte, his colleague. Wyte has been infested with fungus and is slowly being transformed into monster. Although still loved for what remains of the man called Wyte he can no longer be fully trusted, and the way Finch deals with this situation makes some of the most emotionally affecting passages in the book. Towards the end of their relationship they blaze through the 'Partials' in an incredibly exciting scene.
Then there are more plots, more revelations: not least in 'other' kingdoms, some of the them underground and dark - in some way reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer's first book Veniss Underground. There is a shamanic quality to both this, and the way the characters are transformed in order to accomplish their various missions.
Altogether I found Finch to be an extraordinary book, one in which the city of Ambergris seems just as real as the world outside my window.