36. ‘City of Saints and Madmen’ by Jeff VanderMeer

I went through a lot of feelings with this book. I bought it because it seemed to jump off the shelf at me. I wasn’t sure why (perhaps that gorgeous cover), but I just had to get it. Then I started reading and I loved it for its rich, immersive world. Then I began to grow impatient with it, until by the end it had definitely outstayed its welcome.

I was reading it for so long, my hand rubbed Jeff’s name off the cover.

City of Saints and Madmen is not a novel so much as a collection of novellas and fragments. There’s an introduction, written like fiction and imagining VanderMeer himself as a sea captain. Then there are four main stories, each set in and around the fantasy city of Ambergris. One story follows a man wandering the streets of the city, lost in a fever of unrequited love. Another imagines a writer in our world who invented Ambergris and can’t shake the feeling that it might be real. After these stories, the second half of the book (which is more than 700 pages long) is the Appendix. That’s right – half the book. This Appendix includes short stories, academic pamphlets about Ambergris, and an extensive glossary of Ambergrisian terms.

I think the thing that drew me to City of Saints and Madmen – the opportunity to get lost in a hugely detailed imaginary world – is also what ended up annoying me about it. I was with it for the stories and their bending, twisting ‘meta’-ness. I particularly enjoyed the pamphlet-style story about the early history of Ambergris, which tells a fascinating tale of invasion and colonisation, and is written as a perfect send-up of academic papers, in which the author has become disgruntled and written half the text as footnotes just to make it difficult for the reader.

But the more I read, the more I wanted it to be over. For me, it was too much. I started out by occasionally flipping to the glossary and reading entries at random, but as time passed I couldn’t be bothered with that any more. The experimental style, stretched across so many pages, grated on me and the editor part of my brain kicked in and asked whether we really needed all of this, or could we perhaps cut some of it without too great a loss? After all, many of the fragments were quite similar – the same tortured protagonists, the same damp, oppressive, fungi-filled atmosphere, the same winking-at-the-reader knowingness of constantly breaking the fourth wall.

The only other book I’ve read of VanderMeer’s is Annihilation, and I loved that for its atmosphere and – I realise now – for the fact that it isn’t hundreds of pages long. In City of Saints and Madmen I grew tired of the world; in Annihilation I had just long enough to fall in love without ever getting bored.

City of Saints and Madmen has a lot to recommend it. It is strange and twisty, and it deals with obsession, truth vs. fakery, and the whole strange concept of writing fiction in the first place. But for me it went on too long – long enough for me to catch on to the author’s tricks and to see what he was trying to make me feel. Maybe this isn’t a book to read cover to cover, but something to dip into when you want to escape to a different, darker reality.

“To me, this world should be all one continuous vision of goodness.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy City of Saints and Madmen here.

[Disclosure: Above is an affiliate link. If you buy a book through that link, I get a small cut, at no extra cost to you.]

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