The Short Version: The story of an ordinary woman, plucked from her (our?) plane of existence by transdimensional beings kind of like angels to do special-ops type work for them that might just bring about the end of the multiverse. Also there are ghost frogs and transdimensional komodos and a whole host of other weird things.
The Review: Well, fuck.
I’ve been a fan of Jeff’s for a long time but I had no idea just how weird he could get until now. And I say this having read his Ambergris trilogy, full of mushroom-people and squid festivals, as well as the Area X trilogy, with its brightness and tunnel-that’s-a-tower and mice-washing – I mean, I knew he was weird. But this takes the cake, in the best possible way.
This novella – almost more of an individual short story, really – will take you maybe less than a half hour to read, but it almost demands that you turn around and start reading it again. Not that I think you’ll understand it any better, necessarily, but you might glean some interesting secondary details. See, our narrator is a woman recounting what seems to be a weird children’s story at first. Or, well, she’s talking to a child at least and the things she’s making up are strange enough and even a little silly… but, no, they’re real. Whatever’s going on is really going on – and as the story goes on, it’s either that the narrator stops trying to make analogies or we, the reader, have gotten used to the ones that are being made and so you find yourself in short order nodding away at the appearance of a dead rotting bear that is in fact not dead nor is it actually a bear, rather another strange transdimensional creature, described as “something ancient from the future, a refutation of everything you think you know about physics.”
I mean, okay. Sure. You will know better than I whether or not you’re the sort of reader who can get on board with this sort of thing – I, blissfully and happily, happen to be one of those.
Although it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when I might’ve looked at the weirdness of this story (which actually masks a pretty ordinary operative-gone-rogue plot, in some ways) and been completely turned off. But the thing is, the thing that makes Jeff’s work (and the work of the Miévilles and Ciscos of the world) worthy is that it doesn’t wear its weirdness on its sleeve. It isn’t trying to show off, to preen and primp and do acrobatics with language in order to make you think that you must not be worthy if you can’t understand it. No, it’s just really honest and open and telling a good story. If that story happens to deal with the multiverse and an “angel” called Gabriel and, briefly, ghost whales… well, okay. As long as you’re telling me a story, you can put in whatever you want. I’ll be there. And this is Jeff’s gift: he can make the weirdest thing you could possibly imagine somehow, well, imaginable. The descriptions in his story (of that bear, of the “angels”, of the many other weird creatures and species and things that pop up) quite often don’t make a lick of standard sense and if you try too hard to imagine them, you might pass out. But the ability to ride Jeff’s delightful prose into a sort of liminal craziness allows you to imagine without directly imaging, if that makes sense – saving your sanity while still creating for you the enjoyable experience of imagining something as you read.
I could go on about this at length, but it’s probably faster for you to just go find the story and read it. That is, if you don’t mind getting a little (read: a lot) weird.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A blast. Many many times weirder than anything in the Ambergris or Area X trilogies, in the best possible way. If you’re a fan of VanderMeer, you ought to check this out and see just how wild the man’s imagination can get. If you aren’t a fan of VanderMeer yet, go read City of Saints and Madmen or Annihilation and get a little taste of what’s to come. Jumping into the deep end is dangerous, for you and for others – but I promise the water is fine either way. Just look out for the…