Let me tell you about the city: The city is sharp, the city is a cliche performed with cardboard and painted sparkly colors to disguise the empty center - the hole.
A horror-fable set in (or rather, under) a decaying futuristic city, Veniss Underground (2003) was the first novel of seasoned short story writer Jeff VanderMeer. It is a tale of descent into the underworld, anchored in the terrible experiences and tangled interrelation of three central characters - twins Nicola and Nicholas, and Nicola's former lover Shadrach - as they lose, seek, and find each other (not necessarily in that order) in the deepest, darkest levels beneath the city streets.
The novel is split between the three successive viewpoint narratives, each framed to fit the personality and story-role of the character in question, and each adding further layers of detail to story, theme, and world. First of all, bratty Nicholas, the artist, speaks to us in chatty, self-absorbed first-person; he follows up the thumbnail sketch of the city quoted above by hammering home his role in the description's creation, and the import of his perspective: "That's mine - the words. [...] Let me tell you what the city means to me." His interest lies in what he calls Living Art - art that uses, and discards, life, shaping living tissue for temporary effect (but with permanent, terminal consequences for the life).
His stay in the pages is brief. At Shadrach's suggestion, Nicholas goes to the mysterious Quin (who makes much commercial mileage out of precisely the techniques Nicholas uses in his art) looking for work - an encounter worth quoting for the author's characteristic mix of pungent description and mordant humour:
I gulped like an oxygen-choked fishee, because I realized then that not only did Quin lean over the counter, he was the counter. I stopped and stared, mine eyes as buggee as that self-same fishee. I'd heard of Don Daly's Self Portrait Mixed Media on Pavement - which consisted of Darling Dan's splatted remains - but Quin had taken an entirely different slant that reeked of genius. (It also reeked of squirrels in the brain, but so what?)
Portrait of the Artist as a slab of flesh.
Next up is programmer Nicola, an apparently mature and capable person, who is nevertheless helplessly in thrall to her wastrel brother, and relentlessly idealised by her ex. Her role in the story is essentially reactive: some time after the events of the first part, she sets out to investigate her brother's disappearance, and uncovers layers of sinisterly-significant detail regarding Quin and his genetically-manipulated minions (chiefly intelligent, talking meerkats). In her turn, Nicola bites off more than she can chew. She appears in second-person present-tense (for more precise reasons that become apparent later on), underscoring both her limited autonomy and her suffocatingly-close self-association with her twin (it is she who, in my header quote, sees herself staring back in his eyes):
You. Were. Always. Two. As one: Nicola and Nicholas, merging into the collective memory together, so that in the beginning of a sentence spoken by your brother you knew the shadow of its end and mouthed the words before he said them.
Finally (the third circle of the descent?), we get our distanced third-person narration from Shadrach, the outsider - to the Nicola/Nicholas pairing, and to the above-ground city itself. Unlike the twins, Shadrach was born amid the dark, clanking industrial nightmare that is below ground; his new life in the open air is purely the result of chance, a lucky break on the regular ballot that, as young man, gave him (but not his family) the opportunity to leave the underworld behind. His love for Nicola stems from the moment of his emergence, when his first sight was of Nicola, then an "orientation officer" posted to help newcomers. As Nicholas half-mockingly observes:
A wall of light and my sweet sister Nicola, and Shadrach ate them both up. Imagine: living in a world of darkness and neon for all of your life and coming to the surface and there she is, an angel dressed in white to guide you, to comfort you. If you had time, I'd tell you about them, because it was a thing to covet, their love, a thing of beauty to mock the cosmetics ads and their lingerie holos...
Shadrach, distraught at Nicola's vanishing and his own indirect role in it, returns to the underground city - despite deep misgivings - to search for her. For company, he has only the head of Nicola's former 'pet' meerkat, glued onto a plate and understandably pissed off and foul mouthed as a result. (Shadrach names it John the Baptist...). This is where the novel comes into its own, as VanderMeer lets loose his descriptive prose. I was reminded, in some ways, of China Mieville - there is a similar sense of the brooding, visceral baroque at work, but at the same time Veniss Underground is earthier, gorier, more playful (and more succinct...). VanderMeer creates his effects not so much with visual imagery as by exploring the physical, aural and psychological sensations that the surroundings inflict upon his characters:
On the other side of the manhole a wet glob of slugs and grubs waited for him; it was their faint mewling cries he heard, the whole of their pulsing, grey bulk waiting for him to come home. The image of a maggoty, sudden dark. The drip-drip of water. The suggestion of massive machinery grinding. The dark. The harsh, spitting sound of holovids flicking green light from behind closed doors in closed off corridors. The dark.
VanderMeer, in a comment upon Abigail Nussbaum's review, described Veniss Underground as, "a Boschian Decadent novel, with dark humor". The print of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' - see left for the third panel of the triptych, Hell (hopefully it should get bigger if you click...) - currently hanging on my wall nods in vigorous agreement (or it would, were it not, um, a piece of mashed-up dead tree). In the course of Shadrach's descent through the various levels of its hell, VanderMeer's underworld shares something of the fevered, yet precise, detail of Bosch's work, the rich variety of ugliness and despair.
And gore. Among the delights Shadrach must face in his quest is an enormous surgery/abattoir, whereby forgotten unfortunates serve as spare-part-fodder for a far-reaching, fashionable trade in replacement limbs and organs. (A further level in the motif of the malleability and disposability of life in this society). The centrepiece of the operation is a great cathedral (inspired, according to the author's afterword, by none other than York Minster!):
Where the sculptures of saints would have been set into the walls, there were instead bodies laid into clear capsules, the white, white skin glistening in the light - row upon row of bodies in the walls, the bewildering proliferation of walls. The columns, which rose and arched in bunches of five or six together, were not true columns, but instead highways for blood and other substances: giant red, green, blue and clear tubes that coursed through the cathedral like arteries.
In the vaults below, Shadrach must dig through a pile of rotting, discarded limbs to uncover Nicola's mutilated, catatonic (yes, still alive) body. All that remains is to revive and retrieve her - and, of course, to face the other things that lurk in the underworld.
[Aside: oddly, just as I started writing this part, the CD playing on my hi-fi offered up some appropriate lyrics - "If I become another / dig me up from under what is covering / the better part of me" (--Incubus, 'Dig'). Ghoulishly amusing, much like the book...]
Shadrach, then, is our Orpheus, going into the Underworld in search of his Eurydice (and, less urgently, her brother). The parallel is clear, but it informs rather than overpowers the story (possibly because it's hard to upstage a cathedral of blood?). The characters, and their voices, are strong enough to carry the tale; their mutual affection and dependence, while cloying and constricting to all three, also inspires them (well, two of them) to selflessness and heroism, and gives the novel a strong emotional undercurrent to offset the horror.
The only real issue I had with the novel was its brevity, and a certain lack of balance. VanderMeer perhaps tries to do too much in too few pages: structural experimentation, sensory overload, mythic resonance, themes of consequences and taking responsibility, together with the world-changing machinations that lie behind it all. Inevitably, aspects suffer - in particular, I think, the broader picture. The city's underworld is so vivid that it completely overshadows the Veniss above ground, where we spend very little time; the desire (for both reader and character) to return to the surface stems more from fear of the darkness below than it does from anything truly compelling above. We are given precious little background on how or why Veniss came to be the way it is, beyond the back-cover blurb's note that FutureEarth's cities are isolated oases amid a vast ecological desert, and Nicola's reflection:
Once we were close and close-knit, but now we are unmoored islands, each alone, each a separate planet, drifting farther and farther away, content to turn ever inward... This is no idle solipsism; it has taken on the fragile brightness of truth. Cities turned from cities, self-devouring. Governments fragmenting into fragments of fragments. Entertainment become a solitary diversion. Solo adventures.
It is frustrating, and makes the world feel incomplete. This said, however, I suspect it was to some degree intentional. As the title suggests, the focus lies below ground, with the Shadrach's quest and the chilling activities that go on away from the sunlight (the latter of which are, nevertheless, only a dark mirror of what goes on in the sunlight, a world of bioengineered servitors and Living Art). The characters are overwhelmed by the scale and torment of the underground - it seems appropriate that it should also swamp our vision of the world above ground. It enhances the claustrophobia, certainly - but it also, arguably, diminishes the impact of what Shadrach discovers about Quin's plans.
But it's a beautifully disturbing novel, and I'll be reading more VanderMeer.
If you disappear now, Nicholas disappears with you: you are not one, after all, but two, and the city is the only infinite - a maze, a crystal mirror, a shattered toy, a palate of undigested time.