Being good when things are bad

I just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, and saw a note at the end of it that put VanderMeer’s Ambergris books in a category with House of Leaves and Perdido Street Station as books that have “redefined the possibilities of fantastical literature.” I think VanderMeer belongs in that lofty company, but as I read Finch I noticed one other similarity between those three books–they all present settings where making a choice you might reasonably call “good” is incredibly difficult.

Interestingly enough, the book of the trio that’s marketed as a horror novel, House of Leaves, is in some ways the gentlest. The house at the center of the book, with its unending hallways of nothingness, is certainly a horror, but the horror is not unremitting. It’s cast against things like the relationship at the center of the book, that of photographer Will Navidson and Karen Green, along with that of Will and his brother Tom. Indeed, the book needs those relationships–the house has to be a threat, to have something to devour, if it is going to be truly fearsome. The reader has to have some sympathy for the relationships and has to believe that the relationships both could and should survive. If everyone in the book is dysfunctional, then the house is only working on things that would fall apart on their own anyway (which, to be fair, is sometimes the point of the book–the house often amplifies what people already carry with them).

So the relationships give the book some light, but in those dark corridors good choices seem to be hard to make. Possibly the best choice people can make is to ignore that abyss altogether, but that’s the one choice some of them are incapable of making.

The situation in Perdido Street Station is direr. New Crobuzon is a fascinating city, but not necessarily a good place to live. China Miéville’s politics are always present in his work, but they are not foregrounded here as much as they are in, say, Iron Council. Still, the oppressiveness of the city is clear the more time we spend in its streets, at Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin’s actions in the book–his attempts to do things that possibly shouldn’t be done–just add to the problems. It gets to a point where, as Isaac navigates the situation he has helped create, the reader hopes he could find reliable allies, but despairs of that actually happening. There may be some decent people in New Crobuzon, but there are no really good organizations. Every group has their own agenda, and none of them seem to have any regard for, or even concept of, the common good. Individuals are left to make the best choices they can, knowing that the machinery they are caught in will limit the efficacy of whatever they attempt.

The situation is, if anything, worse in Ambergris. None of the relationships John Finch has are untainted by the politics and intrigue going on in the city, and as I was exposed to the representatives of the various factions, I had trouble generating sympathy for any side in the struggle (an effect that seems wholly intentional). Finch seems to be a decent individual, but everything around him is so compromised that the choices he makes can be difficult and have brutal effects on himself on his surroundings–but that’s all he’s left with.

Part of these books’ redefinition of fantastical literature (I’d prefer just to call it “fantasy,” but I know that some people view that term as tainted, and how can you resist the caché of that magic word, “literature”?), then, is to take away the heroic quest element that has been so common in fantasy for years. There certainly is evil in all three books, but it is far beyond the protagonists’ abilities to vanquish it. Their best hope is to survive and try, in some way, to keep themselves distinct from it.

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