Jonathan Briggs's Reviews > Veniss Underground

Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
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May 14, 2012

really liked it

Jeff VanderMeer's debut novel gets off to a somewhat off-putting start, narrated by holovid artist Nicholas, who speaks in an argot the reader must decipher to figure out what the hell's going on. It's written in a style reminiscent of Jeff Noon or Steve Aylett. Not so much far future as somewhere south of ArtyFarty Town. But stick with it. In a few chapters, a new narrator takes over: Nicholas' twin sister, Nicola. Nicola is a computer programmer, not a "slang jockey" like her brother, and she provides a clearer window to peer at VanderMeer's nightmarish future of talking meerkats and bizarre "bioneering."

When Nicola disappears, the POV shifts yet again to her ex-lover Shadrach, who takes over the novel's third and final and most straightforwardly written but by far balls-out WEIRDEST section. Shadrach descends beneath his city, layer by layer by layer, searching for Nicola in a netherworld growing progressively warped the deeper it goes.

This book is a real clout to the imagination, but it feels rushed. This is a quest, this is the stuff of epics, but it's all crammed into about 200 pages. VanderMeer barely gives the reader time to process one freakish setpiece before he's racing off to display another of his hellish wonders. The story needs spaces to breathe. The frenetic pace robs the final paragraphs of much of the emotional impact VanderMeer must have intended. The characters have gone thru a long ordeal underground that's left them physically scarred and spiritually exhausted, but for the audience, it's a story that can be whizzed thru in an afternoon. Still, there are far worse criticisms that can be leveled at an author than that the critic wished there were more to the story.

VanderMeer is one of the most creative and talented and rigorously literary authors working in modern fantasy, and if you have the slightest interest in the genre, you need to be familiar with his work. Even if it looks like he's leading you over rough ground, go with it, give him time, work with him. He's likely to show you things you've never seen before.
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