Fiction Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (2009)
In Finch, we witness one very difficult week of detective John Finch, “Finchy” as his beloved partner Wyte calls him, while he tries to solve an impossible murder case. Living in the dystopian city of Ambergris that is slowly decaying and putrefying after the “Rising” of the Grey Caps, the powerful colonizers of this once magnificent city, Finch risks his and his loved ones’ lives on a daily basis to find the culprits behind two gruesome murders.
The book may seem at first as a noir thriller: We do have our broken, blasé and Teutonic hero in a sensual relationship with a mysterious femme fatale who may or may not be helping him. Yet, the simple categorization of “noir” remains sadly insufficient to determine the phantasmagorical world created by Jeff VanderMeer. First and foremost, Ambergris is a dystopian space that becomes one of the main protagonists of the novel. It is an invaded, transformed city with its organic, inorganic, fungal and dark elements:
“Harsh blue sprawl of the bay, bled from the River Moth. Carved from nothing…. Now the city, riddled through with canals, is like a body that was once drowned. Parts bleached, parts bloated. Metal and stone for flesh. Places that stick out and places that barely touch the surface…. Great masses of green fungus cling to the tops. It makes the towers look shaggy, almost as if they had fur, were flesh and blood. A smell like oil and sawdust and frying meat. “(162)
Ambergris is a city that survives: saw many wars, rebellions, dark times, losses and finally invasion of a completely different species. But precisely because Ambergris has survived one too many events, it is irreparably broken and dying. One may even suggest that with fungus and tendrils growing all over it, the city is zombified: a living dead city filled with partially living dead people. Due to the nature of the colonizer, nothing is buried and gone but everything becomes part of the city one way or another as if the latter was one big organism:
“Corpse islands made from workers who had died in the camps. Reborn as floating compost for fruiting bodies. And far, far below them, the decaying docks, the drowned part of Albumuth Boulevard. All of the dead, still in the buildings where they had worked or lived, the onslaught of water so sudden. Slamming into them. For a time lit up by the strobing of the giant squid that had patrolled the bay. Long since gone, driven out by the pollution. Finch couldn’t take it. Not this morning” (1189)
Bleached, bloated, fleshy, bodily, bloody, fruiting, composting, smelly: We are presented not only with a three dimensional, constantly becoming – dead of a city but we are also forced to experience this city and its becoming in a manner that is bodily and dirty. Indeed, the language of VanderMeer is first and foremost tactile as if we are the ones who are stepping on the fungi covered pavements of Ambergris even if we do not identify with Finch.
Indeed, John Finch is not described as a lovable, trustworthy, good character; rather he is a timorous, lackadaisical survivor who only reacts rather than acts. Interestingly enough, it is hard to find any respectable, identifiable male character at all. Man-kind in general is depicted as frail, violent, impulsive beings doomed to fail. We rarely encounter women in Ambergris but when we do, they are described as strong and dignified beings with a purpose.
What I like most about this book besides its beautiful bodily language and spatial imagination is precisely these subtle discourses that go against the dominant tropes and paths. In a universe where resistance is almost impossible, ideals are trashed and hope is scarce, the only characters that carry some form of goodness and hope are three women that Finch relates throughout the novel. They are all very strong figures who do not need him but help him. They really can help / do something within the limits of the disfigured city of Ambergris because they are stable, unmoving movers: they are depicted as causes affecting events rather than effects of them. For instance, the mysterious Lady in Blue is the leader of rebels who answers all of Finch’s questions, who reminds Finch who he really was while his tomboy neighbor Rath saves him from so many imminent deaths. Hence, in a place of change and becoming where nothing is certain and known, women are described as beings who know. This attitude is radically different from any other literary genres especially from thriller/ science-fiction where women are usually inserted into the novel as ephemeral objects rather than affecting causes.
Exceeding the limits of many genres while being at the crossings of a variety of them makes this specific novel a good example of New Weird. The latter is an amalgamation of fantasy, science- fiction, magical realism, thriller, noir and mystery yet it is also none of those encompassing all of them by displacing their tropes and discourses. If there is a common denominator to the New Weird besides its play on genres, it is as Alice Davies states its pessimistic political aspect: “New Weird politics and social structures are messy, the characters don’t all live happily ever after, and morally satisfying endings should not be expected” I disagree with her here, since after reading Finch I am very morally satisfied: Finch described everyday fascism, effects of colonization , a critique of war and a critique of father (which I have not talked about it too much here in this review since it requires another article) while subtly glorifying women and completely inverting women’s traditional description as sexual/ sensual/ motherly figures. While doing all this, it also retains its suspenseful mystery keeping the reader interested in the plot. If this is an example of the New Weird, I want to read New Weird every day even if does not end on an openly happy note.
- for more on Finch and VanderMeer you can check out: http://www.ambergris.org/
Davies, A. “New Weird 101.” SFRA Review Winter 2010.291 : 8/8/2015,6-9. Web.
VanderMeer, J. Finch. Portland, Oregon: Underland Press, 2009. Kindle File.