City of Saints and Madmen

Jeff VanderMeer

1. Prime/Cosmos, 2002, ISBN 0-9668968-8-2; 448 Pages, Hardcover $40.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Wildside Press, 2003, ISBN 0809532646; 456 Pages, Paperback $19.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Allen B. Ruch

Until I was about ten years old, I thought that New York was an imaginary city. I remember seeing it everywhere, of course: on TV, in movies, on posters and postcards, and even hearing about it in songs – apparently, it was my kind of town, and it never slept. It really didn’t occur to me that the city was real: even to my young brain, it seemed too mysterious, too complicated, too fantastic, a way-station on the road between Camelot and Oz.
Now that I count myself a resident, I can safely report that New York exists, its magical sense of unreality worn thin by countless morning commutes, irrational parking tickets, and unfathomable cabaret laws. And yet, every once in a while I catch a glimpse of something I can only describe as sublime: a moment that trembles on the brink of mystery and then vanishes, carried away on an unexpected scent, or folded between skyscrapers by the flat, grey light of an approaching storm. In these moments, I see in my fallen metropolis the magic long ago transferred to the invisible cities of literature, and in the crush of her crowds and monuments, a numinous shock of recognition opens a brief window: I sight Lankhmar in her sprawling alleys, Arkham in her sudden bookstores, Minas Tirith in the ruin of her smoking towers. In these flashes, the truth is revealed. The great cities of our imagination exist to help us see our own homes more clearly; they are not windows but mirrors, not doorways to escape but portals of recognition. As Melville said of Queequeg’s home, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
In City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer offers us another true place: Ambergris, an ageless, Byzantine sprawl populated by squabbling artists, lewd visionaries, and philosophers at war with their own obsessions. Like the best architects of imaginary cities, VanderMeer has crafted a dark mirror to reflect (and often distort) our own conceptions of reality, bringing into focus the many ways the human imagination attempts to make sense of an often senseless universe. In the city of Ambergris, art, science, religion, and history are in constant strife, their respective adherents waging war through café gossip, whispered innuendo, broadsheet polemics, satirical opera – and occasionally, the sudden, violent retort of an assassin’s knife. At stake seems to be the territory between madness and sanity; but trapped within the surreal labyrinth of the city – where a painting is as powerful as a legion, and even the bankers go armed – telling the difference between the two is an uncertain prospect. Dangerously alluring and invitingly complicit, Ambergris hatches and broods obsessions with an almost sentient awareness, a hothouse cultivating a citizenry like a collection of exotic orchids: unique, fragile, and savagely beautiful.
Clamoring with vibrant typography and engraved with illustrations quaint and curious, City of Saints and Madmen is every bit as colorful and diverse as the inhabitants it describes. Neither a novel nor standard collection of short stories, the book is more an anthology of All Things Ambergris, and contains novellas, weird tales, historical essays, cyphers, private letters, monographs, bibliographies and glossaries – not to mention a few conflicting reports about its own creation. Even the dust-jacket is pressed into service, a short, self-reflexive story inscribed across every square inch of available surface. In part a reflection of VanderMeer’s whimsical imagination, the book’s eclectic nature is also the product of his city’s literary evolution. Until winning the World Fantasy Award in 2000 for the novella The Transformation of Martin Lake, VanderMeer first conceptualized Ambergris through a series of pieces in offbeat literary magazines, stories masquerading as histories, and eccentric chapbooks published under the name of various fictional authors. City of Saints and Madmen collects and revises many of these works, including the award-winning novella that first brought Ambergris to the attention of a wider audience, now positioned as the third piece in the book. Placed in context of the broader history of the city, this story of “classical” Ambergris gains by perspective, and serves as the center of gravity for the entire collection.
Although the introduction of “Martin Lake” assures us that one day he’ll be Ambergris’ greatest painter, we first meet Lake as a typical starving artist, exchanging witticisms and lovers in the seedy cafés of bohemian quarter. His circle of friends are a jaded, bisexual crew of Victorian-like aesthetes and decadents, each sharply in tune with the rise and fall of their fellow travelers. After being rejected by a gallery and absorbing a few less-than-complimentary remarks, Lake comes to the disappointed realization that his work lacks inspiration; and worse still, his companions have been quietly carrying him. In the middle of this crisis of self-doubt, he receives a luxurious but anonymous invitation to a masquerade. Hoping that this cryptic “Invitation to a Beheading” will lead to a discreet commission, Lake decides to attend, even though the city has been plunged into chaos by the sudden death of Voss Bender, the century’s greatest composer and de facto ruler of Ambergris. As Bender’s blind followers and rabid enemies spill into the streets with clubs and knives, the frog-masked Lake announces his presence at the appointed address, where three mysterious figures wearing sinister bird masks reveal the exact nature of his “commission.” Anticipating Lake’s response, they inform him that they have all the time in the world:

The Owl ruffled its feathers, said: “Let me tell you what your response will be, and then perhaps you can move past it to your destiny all the quicker. First, you will moan. You will shriek. You will even try to escape. You will say ‘No!’ emphatically even after we subdue you. We will threaten you. You will weaken. Then you will say ‘No’ again, but this time we will be able to tell from the questioning tone in your voice that you are closer to the reality, closer to the deed. And then the cycle will repeat itself. And then, finally, whether it takes an hour or a week, you will find yourself carrying out your task, because even the most wretched dog wants to feel the sun on its face one more time.

“I won’t do it. I won’t do it.” His words sounded weak, susceptible to influence. He knew that faced with his own extinction he would do anything to stay alive, even if it meant corrupting, perverting, destroying, everything that made him Martin Lake.

The rest of Lake’s brilliant career – his transformation, so to speak – flows from this bitter epiphany.
Largely told in the third person, the narrative sections of “Martin Lake” are intercut with passages “excerpted” from another book, a future appreciation of Lake’s work written by an art critic named Janice Shriek. Filled with typical academic jargon and quoting liberally from other studies about Lake, his most famous paintings are described, placed under review, and carefully analyzed. As the “real” story of Lake’s transformation unfolds, we realize that Shriek and her colleagues couldn’t be more woefully misguided about the underlying meaning of his art: especially his masterpiece, a painting entitled, naturally, Invitation to a Beheading....
That Lake’s painting shares its name with a Nabokov novel is not an accident. VanderMeer’s influences range from genre-bending writers like Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, and Michael Moorcock to modern masters such as Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, and Franz Kafka. Although the Ambergris stories fall under the rubric of fantasy – or “Dark Fantasy,” as some prefer – they are substantial works of postmodern fiction, and sit comfortably on the shelf between Angela Carter and Gene Wolfe. Like many of his influences, VanderMeer’s work has roots in pulp fiction as well as literature, and he brings an irresistible sense of fun to his writing, playing every card in the postmodern deck with a cheerful sense of abandon. City of Saints and Madmen is bursting with all manner of Borgesian literary games, from the summarizing and reviewing of countless imaginary books to the satirical use of academic footnotes, annotations and bibliographies. His stories are layered with a shrewd but playful intertextuality – not only do they constantly refer to each other, but they often echo the “real world” in their facetious names and ironic allusions. Indeed, VanderMeer displays his influences with a brazen openness that disarms any charges of plagiarism – after all, he pays much of his debt by naming Ambergris’ mercurial bookstore “The Borges Bookstore,” and what can one say about professional squidologists with names like Maxwell Brod?
Although these literary games and in-jokes add a sense of levity to his stories, VanderMeer’s postmodern aesthetic runs much deeper than a fondness for clever tricks. From the dubious description of the author on the jacket flap to its final notes on typography, City of Saints and Madmen takes delight in spreading incertitude and confusion, subverting the usual boundaries between author, subject, and reader. Many of the stories contain built-in instabilities, from metafictional paradoxes that threaten to unravel the narrative to delayed pieces of information that change the reader’s interpretation of an earlier event. VanderMeer also has an epistemological axe to grind – through both subject and execution, his stories consistently question the nature of knowledge and perception. By positioning reality as a subjective construct of meaning, VanderMeer undermines its foundations in both personal experience and social consensus. In City of Saints and Madmen, no single character is granted a more privileged or more valid point of view than any other, from isolated lunatic to academy historian – to call his narrators “unreliable” would be kind. The citizens of Ambergris continually refute each other, and for every fact or explanation encountered, one may be certain only of an eventual contradiction. Like a naughty deity off paring his nails and snickering, VanderMeer has abdicated narrative authority to his own creation, a rabble of demiurges multiplying “realities” in a hopelessly corrupt world.
City of Saints and Madmen even opens with a deception, a story of frustrated desire called “Dradin in Love.” VanderMeer’s first full-length tale of Ambergris, “Dradin” is presented as a rather traditional fantasy story, told in third-person narrative. It concerns the affairs of a rather shabby monk named Dradin Kashmir, a missionary who discovers that his feverish years of conversion and cannibalism in the jungles have been poor preparation for navigating the perils of Ambergris. Only much later do we discover that “Dradin in Love” is actually a “dubious third-person autobiography written by a madman.” Of course, one may wish to consider that this information is provided by the inmate of an asylum; but regardless of its “authorship,” this once-independent novella introduces some of the key elements of VanderMeer’s colorful city: its commercial dependency and obsession with squid, its aversion and dread of fungus, and its occasional descents into mass hallucination.
Arriving in Ambergris on the eve of the Festival of the Freshwater Squid (an annual bacchanalia pitched somewhere between Mardi Gras and Star Trek’s “Festival of Landru”), Dradin spies a woman in a nearby office window and becomes inexplicably smitten with her. Learning the arts of wooing from a tattooed dwarf named Dvorak Nibelung, the lovestruck monk attempts to win her affections as the Festival drives the city inexorably into chaos.
Although Dradin and Dvorak form quite an engaging pair, the star of the tale is possibly not a character at all, but the city’s religious quarter. In many ways, Dradin’s first impression stands as a microcosm for Ambergris itself:

After breakfast, necklace and map in hand, Dradin wandered into the religious quarter, known by the common moniker of Pejora’s Folly after Midan Pejora, the principal early architect, to whose credit or discredit could be placed the slanted walls, the jumble of Occidental and accidental, northern and southern, baroque and pure jungle, styles. Building battled for breath and space like centuries-slow soldiers in brick-to-brick combat. To look into the revolving spin of a kaleidoscope while heavily intoxicated, Dradin thought, would not be half so bad.

Ending with a nasty twist that evokes Thomas Pynchon’s V., Dradin’s tale is followed by “The Hoegbotton’s Guide to the Early History of Ambergris.” Whereas “Dradin” and “Martin Lake” may be read as works of fiction, this piece purports to be a historical essay written by Duncan Shriek, an Ambergris historian and brother to the art critic Janice. Like most of the city’s scholars, Shriek – who also authors the glossary that closes the book – is quite fond of annotations. “The Hoegbotton’s Guide to the Early History of Ambergris” is riddled with idiosyncratic and often hilarious footnotes, in which Shriek provides not only alternate histories and conflicting accounts, but fussy personal asides, doodles, recipes, and a casual suggestion that the document at the center of Ambergris historical studies might actually be the preface to a lost fictional epic.
Amidst the friendly chatter of his annotations, Shriek capably outlines the convoluted history of Ambergris, his main focus falling on the central issue plaguing the city since its foundation – the conflict between humans and “mushroom dwellers.” Small, humanoid creatures in dark robes and mushroom-like hats, the “grey caps” were a peaceful race dwelling on the banks of the River Moth in the time before Ambergris. Massacred almost to the point of genocide by the city’s founding fathers – a group of whalers and pirates bent on colonization – the remaining grey caps retreated, vanishing into the bowels of their subterranean labyrinth. Nearly a century later, Ambergris was visited by a famine that necessitated desperate measures of survival, and a mass fishing expedition was launched, calling away the city’s leader and five thousand of her most capable citizens. Upon returning to Ambergris, the men and women found their city utterly deserted of inhabitants – every living soul had simply vanished, leaving behind no signs of struggle. Called “The Silence,” this episode haunts the psychology of Ambergris as both the city’s greatest tragedy and its greatest unsolved mystery. Its legacy of sorrow and dread invests City of Saints and Madmen with a sense of melancholy gravitas, an effective balance to the lighter elements of satire and whimsy. Wisely, VanderMeer makes no attempts to explain The Silence. A black hole at the center of his fictional universe, it achieves visibility only through a surrounding accretion of divergent legends, family histories, and competing theories.
After “The Transformation of Martin Lake,” we arrive at a series of interrelated pieces revolving around the strange Dr. V and his mentally ill patient, X. Both characters are introduced in the short story, “The Strange Case of X,” where it quickly becomes clear that X is VanderMeer himself, undergoing analysis for his unusual beliefs on the existence of Ambergris. Although the conceit of a writer trapped in his fiction has become something of a cliché, VanderMeer earns our indulgence through his offbeat charm and self-mocking humor. A world-renowned author, the unfortunate X seems to be the victim of his own success, his stories of Ambergris having surpassed Harry Potter levels of fame – there’s even a “Dwarf & Missionary” role playing game! Unfortunately, it seems that X cannot stop writing about Ambergris, and as his fictional universe presses against his reality, it begins making terrible demands on his family and friends – including a woman named Janice Shriek. As X’s tale unfolds, its surface absurdities are unmasked to reveal an involving story of obsession and its consequences, and his anxieties as a writer, husband, and father have a confessional honesty that’s unexpectedly poignant.
While the ending of the story is somewhat predictable, VanderMeer pushes us further through the looking glass with his so-called “appendix.” Taking up the entire second half of the book, this appendix consists of the various papers found among X’s possessions, each presented in full after being meticulously cataloged by the questionable Dr. V. Along with – naturally! – a copy of City of Saints and Madmen (which presumably contains the appendix itself, ad infinitum), we get a various assortment of stories, essays, and monographs written by various Ambergrisian authors and scholars. Most of these are short stories of varying degree of “authenticity,” with “The Release of Belacqua” containing the most metafictional puzzles.
The problems with “The Release of Belacqua” begin with its very authorship. Although it bears the name of Sirin, Ambergris’ greatest writer, in a letter to Dr. V, Sirin categorically denies having written it. This leads Dr. V to assume that X himself is the author of the tale. The title character is likewise problematic. In the story, set in Ambergris’ past, Belacqua is a minor character in a Voss Bender opera called Trillian. But a quick check of the libretto informs Dr. V that there is no such character in the opera; which may not be that surprising after all – at the end of the story, Belacqua is granted his freedom by an omnipotent being named “X.” Writing him out of both opera and story alike, a grateful Belacqua fades away. (Perhaps to reappear in Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks?)
Sirin returns as author of “The Cage.” A haunting short story about loss, nostalgia, and acceptance, “The Cage” explores The Silence through the eyes of a lonely antiquarian. (However, Sirin does wonder how X could have been in possession of an unpublished manuscript he just completed....) An example of an Ambergrisian “weird tale,” Sirin’s story is straight-forward, somber, and self-contained; the exact opposite of Duncan Shriek’s “Glossary of Ambergris.” Containing enough imaginative asides to seed another collection of short stories, Shriek’s cranky piece is more of an encyclopedia than a glossary, and his accounting of Ambergrisian people, places, and things reads like a loopier version of City of Saints and Madmen cast in miniature.
But between Sirin and Shriek there is Madnok, the true hero of the appendix. Author of “King Squid,” Madnok’s monograph takes the form of a pamphlet inserted into the book, laid out in bold typography and emblazoned with Doré-like illustrations by real-world artist John Coulthart. Like so many other pieces in the collection, “King Squid” works on several layers, and rewards close attention to details. At first glance, it seems to be the work of another eccentric Ambergris academic, the Kinbote-like Frederick Madnok. The subject under study is the King Squid, the largest denizen of the River Moth. With the same elliptical obsession Melville brought to the Sperm Whale, Madnok delineates his research, explaining not only what the King Squid is, but what it is not, and offering unsolicited advice to a scientific community blissfully unaware of his work. Extensively footnoted, the monograph concludes with a ridiculously exhaustive bibliography, ranging from plausible entries such as Harold Shannon’s Cephalopod Mating Behavior to more dubious titles like Cynthia Babbit’s A Child’s Coloring Book of Squid, Featuring Three Imaginary Ones.
A careful reading of the monograph and its attendant notes, however, reveals two deeper currents guiding the path of Madnok’s “King Squid.” The first is suggested by Madnok’s obsession with “squidanthropy.” A psychological disorder ostensibly common in Ambergris, a person afflicted with squidanthropy believes that he or she is gradually transforming into a giant squid. As the monograph progresses, Madnok’s defense of squidanthropy takes on more strident tones, and by its conclusion we are hardly surprised to find that “King Squid” has more in common with Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth than those happily neurotic chapters of Moby-Dick. The second, and deeper, current awaits those who plunge bravely into the bibliography. On one hand, Madnok’s citations are peppered with the amusing anecdotes and squabbling quiddities found throughout City of Saints and Madmen. But what do we make of such jarring, off-topic entries as “Flack, Harry, Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute Patient Evaluation Form”? Or more disturbing still, Yowler’s The Beaten Child, Roundtree’s Husbands Who Kill Their Wives, and Smutney’s The Squid That Killed His Own Father? Like veiled signals of help from Madnok’s “rational” mind, these apparent non-sequiturs invite a careful reader to piece together his life, from his lonely childhood on a squid-mill to the dynamics of his dysfunctional family. By the end of the pamphlet, it seems evident that Madnok is writing from an asylum, his mind shattered after murdering his own homicidal father. Needless to say, this understanding throws doubt on the entire monograph, from Madnok’s eagerly anticipated “transformation” to the very existence of squidanthropy itself – a disorder not mentioned elsewhere in the book.
This development is all the more remarkable when one considers that City of Saints and Madmen is, after all, a work of fantasy. By being denied the transformation and escape accepted (and perhaps even expected) within such a milieu, Madnok is dramatically humanized. The reader, who was initially moved from curiosity to horror, is finally brought to understanding, and even pity.
In the end, it is this emotional resonance that allows us to sympathize with VanderMeer’s collection of saints and madmen – we are struck by Madnok’s pathetic desperation, Lake’s bleak self-awareness, Dradin’s insecurity and naïveté. While the Ambergris stories certainly dazzle the imagination with their ebullient style, this never becomes a substitute for actual substance. VanderMeer has rendered his world in compelling detail, and his characters are as fascinating as they are recognizably human. Despite the exotic nature of their setting, the inhabitants of Ambergris dwell in interior worlds not unlike our own: they worry about health, money and success, they brood about their families and relationships, and they experience life with equal measures of anxiety and wonder.
Like the most enduring of imaginary cities, Ambergris is a place we have visited often, because it is all cities: and yet, being a distillation of impossible moments, it remains forever out of reach. It is with good reason that VanderMeer has named his eternal city after the “most secret and valuable part of the whale,” that nearly obscene substance found in the dying leviathan, ridiculous and priceless, produced by undigested squid-beaks and transformed into perfumes and aphrodisiacs. As Melville asks in Moby-Dick, “Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing?”

–Allen B. Ruch
13 August 2003

Additional Information

VanderMeer’s Official Page – Details Jeff VanderMeer’s many interlocking works.

VanderWorld – The author’s cheerful homepage.

Borges Influences – A piece on Borges influences in VanderMeer’s work; located at The Garden of Forking Paths.

Angela Carter – VanderMeer’s Scriptorium page on British writer Angela Carter.


Email Allen B. Ruch at:

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.