The caprices of the written word – of its infinite potential for misreading, misinterpretation, misrepresentation – have long been a concern of the Gothic mode: think of Frankenstein‘s layered unreliable narrators; of Wuthering Heights’ overheated epistolary format; of the uncertain ontological status of the film The Navidson Record in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Texts of all kinds, these novels tell us, are slippery, unstable things, contingent on the perceptions of both their readers and their writers; they both discuss this instability and perform it in the gaps between their constituent parts, in the way that they all, in various ways, use the hyperbolic aesthetics of the mode to reveal and conceal the great indescribable void that lies at the heart of language itself.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword participates similarly in this process. Set in the fictional city of Ambergris, the subject of several of Vandermeer’s works, it is, as the title suggests, a purported afterword to “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris”, one of the stories in the collection City of Saints and Madmen (which I have not read, but now fully intend to). The fact that, being novel-length, it is substantially longer than the text it is supposedly appended to is one of its many deliberate, and delicious, ironies. It’s the tale of the “Early History”’s author, Duncan Shriek, edited substantially by his sister Janice, and then edited again by Duncan; together, by lurching turns, they tell the story of Duncan’s disgrace at the hands of his ex-lover, the rival historian Mary Sabon, and of Janice’s own rise and fall in the city’s art scene.
Underpinning these domestic dramas, like a constant uneasy pulse in the background, is the awareness of the unknowable realm that lies beneath the city – the realm of the gray caps, inscrutable fungoid creatures who were massacred in their thousands when Ambergris was founded, and who are widely considered to be behind a disastrous and inexplicable historical event called the Silence, when a large part of Ambergris’ citizenry disappeared without a trace. What are the gray caps thinking, what are they planning (they certainly seem to be planning something), what do they want and why? No-one knows. It is perhaps not possible to know.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel reminded me strongly of China Mieville’s sublime, messy Bas-Lag series, which is similarly interested in how what we fondly know as civilisation, the social order of the city, coexists with the unknowable and the inhuman. The gray caps and their fungal world are what Mieville would call abcanny: illegible, unspeakable, so utterly outside any human frame of reference as to be incapable of being contained in normal symbolic schema, and yet, perhaps precisely because of that, unignorable.
Set alongside the mystery of the gray caps, which Duncan is unsuccessfully trying to investigate, is the comparatively mundane fact of the novel’s metatextual games: its footnotes, its editorial interpolations, its interest in different methods of historiography and different ways of relating to the past. As we have seen, this kind of textual play troubles our understanding of language, of the written word, as straightforwardly representative; if each of us interprets language, and textual constructs like history, differently, what kind of claim can any of us ever make to objective truth?
Taken together, then, the gray caps and the novel’s textual instability both point up the inadequacy of our models of seeing the world; in Lacanian terms, they represent the Real intruding inescapably into the Symbolic. Duncan and Janice’s interpersonal problems seem almost irrelevant against the threat, the mystery, of the gray caps; their bickering over who gets the last word feels insignificant given their society’s inability to interpret events like the (aptly-named) Silence. And yet. Life goes on. The city remains.
As metaphors for the human condition go, it’s a troubling and perceptive one. The great strength of the novel is that it never does explain what the gray caps’ deal is; that despite all attempts to interact with them they remain simply…there, causing the city to stew in its own genocidal guilt, which it is neither willing to ignore nor to engage with productively. Vandermeer, like the best Gothic novelists, ekes tremendous resonance and power from the work of simultaneously concealing and revealing the unspeakability that lies at the heart of our most fundamental social structures, the senseless, brutal violence underlying much of Western civilisation. Ambergris, embattled and sinful city of saints and madmen, is a place I’ll definitely be returning to.