Jeff Vandermeer, Corvus, 339pp, pb
Finch is the third of Vandermeer’s Ambergris novels (along with City of Saints and Sinners and Shriek: An Afterword) though it exists quite comfortably as a stand-alone narrative. Ambergris is a city that has been torn apart by war, but is now under occupation of another sort, by the gray caps, creatures who emerged from underground during the Rising. In the aftermath of this takeover, they are transforming the city through corruption, literally; the city is rotting, being reshaped by fungal eruptions, its people pacified by fungal drugs or victims of fungal attacks. People struggle to survive as best they can, some by becoming rebels and leaving the city; others stay on and work, albeit unwillingly, with the gray caps to maintain some semblance of order. Finch is one of these. A man with no past, he has become a policeman, and as the novel opens is called in to investigate the discovery of two dead bodies in an apartment, a man and a gray cap, the former utterly unmarked, the latter sliced neatly in half at the waist as though guillotined.
From the outset, this is clearly not a classic homicide but something almost Fortean in its bizarreness, though people seem less excited than one might expect, perhaps because war and the Rising have stripped them of the capacity to be surprised by anything any more. As Finch makes enquiries, he becomes uncomfortably aware that more than one group is interested in the bodies and that he is the focal point for their interactions with one another. Let’s just say it’s inevitably painful for Finch.
The deaths provide the impetus for Finch’s journeys around Ambergris as he investigates, and are the key to the novel’s climax, but having said that, compelling as the mystery is, I still can’t help feeling that in some way it is almost incidental to the story. What really captured my attention in Finch is the portrayal of a city struggling to survive, its population trying to make some sort of accommodation with the situation in which it finds itself. Finch is the albeit reluctant representative of order imposed by the invaders who simultaneously acts as a kind of remembrancer for the old city. I think it is no coincidence that he keeps a map of the old city with an overlay on which he charts the many changes that Ambergris has undergone. Much as he stands between the different interests that swirl around the dead bodies, Finch also stands between the past and the present of Ambergris.
This is a fantastically atmospheric novel in so many ways. On the one hand there is the vegetal transformation of the city and the people; everything is slimy, oozing, glistening, and desperately repellent. The streets are dangerous, broken down into smaller and smaller, almost invisible territories. On the other, there is the evocation of a city half-emptied of its population, somehow struggling on, its inhabitants worn, grey and malnourished, hanging on to such small pleasures as they can find, physical and intellectual. I think in particular of Rathven, Finch’s friend, who scours the city, rescuing books and the knowledge they contain, and of the Photographer, constantly recording the world around him, as well as Finch himself, haunted by memory and identity.
I was momentarily tempted to devote this review to listing books and authors that other people have said that Finch is either similar to, or a mash-up of, of which there are a surprising number, some of them a little improbable. Prompted by this orgy of comparison, the two novels that sprang to my mind were Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After and Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, because both have a similarly elegaic flavour, a sense of past and present overlapping, of sudden and unwelcome transformation. Comparisons are useful but in the end Finch remains elusive; there is nothing quite like it, which I find exceedingly cheering.