Review: Dark carnivale in 'Veniss'
A novel of far-future fantasy envisions genetic 'living art'
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- The trouble with the biblical story of Jonah, of course, is that you miss its point. Surviving inside a "great fish" eclipses Jonah's original mission of cleaning up the wicked city of Ninevah.
Similarly, Jeff VanderMeer's darkly distinctive "Veniss Underground" baits the reader with a carnivale of awful beauty, the "adder's hiss" of this wicked city's name. And VanderMeer's climax goes right into the maw of a vast fish:
"Soon, Shadrach could see that it didn't just look like a huge pair of spread jaws, it was a huge pair of spread jaws. Dripping seaweed and teeth, they rose some six hundred feet above the surface. The flesh of those jaws was pitted and gnarled with age or ill-use ..."
The only problem is that by the time your attention is swallowed up by this great entity's appearance, you've eluded the barb of a gleaming emotional hook. Shadrach has had another, more monstrous experience: With the aid of a "psychewitch," he has taken on the feelings of the person he loves -- and has found out that she truly doesn't love him.
Artists and mutilation
The novel's plot can be boned quickly. Nicholas goes missing. His vat-born twin sister Nicola, goes looking for him and becomes a victim of "living art," a form of bio-engineering that has fascinated Nicholas since childhood. Nicola's boyfriend -- that's Shadrach -- heads in to bring her out and, in the process, decides he'd better vanquish the evil genius running the show, which is whimsically known as Quin's Shanghai Circus.
That's where the grotesquerie comes in. The missing Nicholas is a smalltime "living artist," himself, meaning that he manipulates, merges and mangles the genetics of other creatures. Lying deep below whatever's left after an eco-apocalypse, Veniss' subterranean world is a giant lab for Quin, the recognized master among "living artists." And although much of the queasy elegance of VanderMeer's imagined scenario comes from this organ-bank aesthetic, echoes of Dr. Frankenstein quickly give way to the dread of Dr. Mengele:
"More creatures came at him from the dark -- creatures with eyes peering from their legs and grotesque goat heads," VanderMeer writes. "Creatures that scuttled on eight legs and had the features of delicately proportioned apes pinned to the scorpion's carapace. ... Some were just exhausted networks of veins, red and panting and in an agony that, for lack of a mouth, screamed from their every jerking movement. Eyeballs in clustered bunches hopped upon a single foot, casting their liquid gaze at Shadrach."
Like Hieronymus Bosch at work in a garden of unearthly mistakes, VanderMeer at several points seems to plant ideas where pruning might have been smarter. Most notably, there's the unspeakable plight in which Shadrach finds Nicola. We won't describe it, in order to avoid spoiling your own experience of the book. Suffice it to say that the sequence switches the book's personality, temporarily, from social fantasy to a comparatively banal scene of fleshy horror.
But how subtly Veniss glimmers with something familiar. There are canals, and a gratifying mention of floating cathedrals. It's all underpinned by at least 30 levels in its lower depths. VanderMeer shoves his way right past the suspension-city of William Gibson's "All Tomorrow's Parties" and roots around under a bridge of moans, not sighs. So ruthless is this metropolis of degradation that human desperation is overrun by genetically malleable assassin-meerkats.
"Veniss Underground" is not to be missed for several reasons. First, it's profoundly serious. In our own society, made daily more stupid by sitcoms, VanderMeer's relentlessly grim vision is a gift. Second, the book defines with surgical clarity the strength of the human heart, even a broken one, and the weakness of the flesh, even enhanced. And finally there's the writing. VanderMeer may remind some of off-Broadway "language poet" playwright Mac Wellman:
"Anyway, ever since the space freighters stopped their old splash 'n' crash in the cool down canals, the Canal District has been the hippest place in town. Go there sometime and think of me, because I don't think I'll be going there again. Half the shops float on the water, so when the ocean-going ships come in with their catch and off-load after decon, the eateries get the first pick. All the Biggest Wigs eat there. You can order pseudo-whale, fiddler, sunfish, the works."
The Old Testament's Shadrach stunned King Nebuchadnezzar II by surviving the "fiery furnace" of Babylon (in modern-day Iraq), as wicked a city in its biblical evocation as Veniss is in this novel. Good names never go out of fashion: You'll be pulling for this Shadrach to survive the underground. And you won't forget this VanderMeer cat's name, either. His work is far-future but near-nerve.
Also from Jeff VanderMeer: "Leviathan Three," an anthology co-edited with Forrest Aguirre (2002); and "City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris" (2001 paperback, 2002 hardcover).