Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
A double murder. Suspects pursued. Mysteries, the least of which is the murder. Finch is a unique book on many levels. In the acknowledgment, VanderMeer thanks his editor for “an analysis of and methodology for sentence fragments.” As a mystery it’s more important than ever to avoid spoilers in a review, but Finch makes this easy as there’s plenty of interest without even touching the plot. Finch is the third book set in the fictional city of Abergris, following City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword, and it’s the first novel of VanderMeer’s that I’ve read.
Finch is unquestionably noir and unquestionably speculative fiction (I’ve been fixated on this combination recently). One of the book’s many mysteries for me as a reader was what speculative fiction pile to stack it on. It has none of the elves and dragons and such that would immediately identify it as fantasy. It has no shiny space ships and scientists to identify it squarely as science fiction. I was asked on twitter if Finch was any good, and my response was:
Dark, intense, beautiful, with distinct prose. Mysteries within mysteries. Borges on shrooms. Tempted to read again tonight.
I was introduced to Jorge Luis Borges by math and science professors in college and I love how a Borges story captures a mathematical, logical, or scientific concept with beautifully surreal prose. Finch has that quality in spades. Science fiction staples are explored in a surreal yet gritty setting. There are plenty of other elements in the book that scream Borges at me, most notably books within books. The latter part of the statement, “Borges on shrooms.” is a blatant double entendre.
The description of Abergris in Finch is darkly beautiful. But that description is a calming hallucination (shrooms 1). The reality that comes into focus is horrific. A once grand, but now war-ravaged city is rotting from the inside. That “rot” is a fungus (shrooms 2). Fungus as magic or technology wielded by intelligent fungus creatures. I’ve mentioned before that I have a fondness for mushrooms. One of my first jobs in high school was on a shitake mushroom farm in Virgina. You grow shitake mushrooms by drilling a bunch of holes into a log and hammering in wooden plugs that have been inundated with the shitake mycelium. In about 18 months, that log is full to bursting with mycelium and the mushrooms start popping out. This gave me a very real reference point to think about how a fungus based life form could come to power. Mushrooms are like icebergs, what you see is only a fraction of what exists below the surface. What we see are the gray caps: inhuman, malevolent, and hard to kill.
In addition to the mysterious gray caps, all the noir trappings exist. With flair. Even the most minor character isn’t a cardboard cutout. Thugs have creative hobbies. Seemingly innocent dames are well developed characters. The crime lords and such are played by spies and rebels with intricate and shifting alliances based on a detailed history. The mystery reader will have plenty to please them, as will both the fantasy and science fiction fan. The mystery is a fractal object in this novel. It exists in every character, every plot point, the structure of the prose and even the cover itself. I’ll be returning to Ambergris to experience the earlier installments, and I think Finch may very well join Dune and a handful of others on my short list of books I can’t read too many times.