Three Things I Learned From City of Saints and Madmen

I bought City of Saints and Madmen on a whim, many years ago. I suspect I was too young to properly appreciate it back then. In fact, I don’t clearly remember if I even finished it. Regardless, it left a strong impression on me and it has influenced my own work.

The book was my introduction to the New Weird, a genre that is even more difficult to define than most genres. These stories of the city of Ambergris are like fantasy in that they create a secondary world, but there are no wizards, no magic, no elves. There are elements of steampunk in the presence of post-industrial technologies, but they are props, not the focus. There are certainly elements of horror, as these stories are often dark and bleak, unsettling and violent. There is more than  a touch of the literary, the savoriness of phrasings and narrative in unusual, twisted  forms.

Recently, an even larger Ambergris anthology was printed, and I had to buy it. It is a massive tome, combining three books—City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch.

Unfortunately, I discovered that this new version is missing almost everything from the appendix of the original book of City of Saints and Madmen. Even more unfortunately, this so-called appendix is almost half of the book, and it adds far more than just ancillary information. So despite having bought the new edition, I have to keep the old book for the huge chunk they cut out.

As usual, I don’t like to write ordinary reviews (and I’d be hard-pressed to review this strange book, anyway). Instead, I want to talk about what I’ve learned from it.

1 – Don’t be Bound by Traditional Narrative Forms

Vandermeer didn’t just write an anthology of ordinary stories. Instead, he presents the city of Ambergris through various narrative lenses. There are ordinary stories, but there are also pamphlets of civil history and family history, notes from psychiatrists, and a slightly deranged monograph on a fantastical type of giant squid. Hell, the squid monograph even has a ridiculously long bibliography of completely made-up sources.

Presenting fiction in some of these forms might seem like a bad idea, but Vandermeer makes it work. “Dradin in Love,” the first story, pulls you into the book with a strong narrative, providing an introduction to the city and piquing your interest. Then he expands the setting through a guidebook essay, “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris.” He keeps it light with snarky footnotes from the author, an irritable historian who considers himself above writing a cheap guide, but still does it for the easy money.

“The Transformation of Martin Lake” follows Lake, an artist who will become famous in Ambergris for his oil paintings, through the most formative period of his life.  Inserted between these scenes are the speculations and interpretations of his work by a famed art critic. As the story eventually reveals the dark secrets of his success, we see that the critic’s analysis is wildly inaccurate.

In “The Strange Case of X,” we witness an interview between a psychiatrist and his patient. The story flits from third person to first person, to the raw transcript of the interview and back again. The patient, X, turns out to be a stand-in for Vandermeer himself, institutionalized because he has become so obsessed with the fictional city that he can no longer differentiate between the real world and his own creations.

Then (at least in the original printing) we reach the purposely mis-capitalized AppendiX, itself presented as a collection of items found in X’s room at the asylum after he mysteriously disappears. Within this frame are more stories and tidbits, letters and codes. The sheer variety of forms keeps you wondering what you’ll encounter next, and in a subtle way they help to build the verisimilitude of Ambergris. This is a city with a history, with surrounding geography, with politics and art and beauty and danger, as well as hundreds of thousands of people going about their business.

Many of these forms involve multiple characters with differing opinions and interpretations. There is Lake and the critic. There is the dry history of Ambergris, and historian’s irritated footnotes. There is the interview with X, and the psychiatrist’s interpretations. Just as real people often come at reality from different angles, the characters in Vandermeer’s stories are constantly vying for narrative control.

2 – A Web of References is a Puzzle to Solve

“Dradin in Love” opens the book with a gripping story, but it also sets up much more of the book than the reader will realize at first. It introduces the Religious Quarter, Albumuth Boulevard, the river Moth, the distant city of Morrow, Borges Bookstore and the Hoegbotton and Sons mercantile empire. It introduces the delights and horrors of the Festival. Dradin and his former teacher, Cadimon, and the ubiquitous musical genius of Voss Bender.

In every single section of the book, every story and essay and letter, there are scattered little references to the people, places and things of Ambergris. Some are large and glaringly obvious. Others are extremely subtle, and sometimes even inserted into what seems to be purposely dull writing (a bibliography and glossary, for example) in order to obscure them. Characters and places that seem to be little more than decoration in one story reappear in unexpected places later on.

Once again, this makes the random selection of literary bits and bobs slowly congeal into a much more unified whole as you read deeper into it. It also encourages the reader to pay attention to all the details. The kind of reader who loves to solve mysteries and riddles will begin to see the book as a puzzle, and each subtle reference clicks into place like another piece, forming a larger picture.

Of course, the danger with this style of writing is that the reader may not want a difficult book that they have to “solve” to find satisfying. They may not want to wade through bibliographies and glossaries to find some small connection between Martin Lake and Dradin Kashmir. They may not be tantalized by the coded section at the end of the psychiatrist’s letter. They may simply be irritated. But the readers who like that sort of thing will feel rewarded by what they have found, and there is magic in the idea that you may not have caught all the secrets on the first read-through.

3 – Setting is an Engine of Story

Something I find myself often referencing is Lincoln Michael’s post “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story.” Writers talk constantly about character- and plot-driven fiction, but there are really an astonishing number of ways to make a story work.

I think City of Saints and Madmen is definitive proof that setting can power a story. This ramshackle collection of elements should not feel unified. There are characters, yes, and there is plot, here and there. But it is the city of Ambergris that ties it all together. All of the other elements are in service of that. Even the author of Ambergris, X, finds himself in thrall to it, the city seemingly dictating its own creation.

I have to confess that I find this heartening. I’ve had a fictional city of my own that I’ve been slowly building for a few years, but I’ve struggled to find characters and plots that I find satisfying. I’ve considered short stories, a novel, and even a TTRPG setting. Maybe I should just follow the lesson of Ambergris. Maybe the city itself is the story.

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