By turns this book has delighted and annoyed me, which has compelled me to write this to try to understand why I have had this response.
The first story is a delight, beautifully written and it slowly introduces the reader to the unusual city that is Ambergris. The story is that of an outsider who falls in love with a woman in a window, and the way that he tries to get her to notice him and reciprocate his love, against a backdrop of a very strange culture.
The second is the story of the origins of the city, written long after the event, with numerous footnotes and scathing comments about the interpretations put on events by the writer's fellow academics/competitors. This is where the mushroom dwellers role in Ambergris is considered, although even so they remain a shady presence.
The third story is the story of a painting, told through the story of the artist from different sources. Each source seems to have a slightly more or less accurate appreciation of the actual events, as revealed by the central narrative. Another outsider, a struggling artist, who is unwittingly pulled centre stage. The story is a little slow to unwind but has some beautiful images within it.
The final story explores the potential links between our real world of Chicago and the imaginary world of Ambergris, through the interrogation of X. I found this the least satisfactory of the four stories, perhaps because there was less room for the delights of Vandermeer's writing, and perhaps because after a little while the outcome becomes rather predictable.
And then there is the AppendiX, which are the writings that X has in his possession in the fourth story. Some of them are interesting and humorous, but parts are rather self-indulgent; do we really need an annotated bibliography of writings about the King Squid that goes on for twenty-odd pages. It's a generalisation I know, but when a book suddenly starts using different fonts I think that it's a bit of a danger signal. There are different fonts and page borders aplenty in the AppendiX.
The frustration comes because each piece of work opens a tiny window onto the big picture that is Ambergris, but ultimately all you have are several tiny windows showing certain aspects in greater or lesser detail, but the full picture remains hidden. Imagine a vast picture over which someone has positioned an advent calendar. Each story opens a window, but by the time you've finished the book you have only revealed a tiny fraction of the picture.
So I suppose what I'm saying is that I want more about Ambergris, I want to know more about the people who live and work there, not just a few outsiders and fanatics. I want to hear about different areas, different roads, the harbour and the government.
I suppose that this would have been an absolutely cracking third or fourth book about Ambergris, had the earlier books put the basic city in place. Since those earlier books don't exist it is really frustrating. But it is also really good.
Update - I have now discovered Shriek: An Afterword
which are set in Ambergris and follow on from this collection of stories. Finch especially is an intriguing cocktail of a book, but I haven't finished Shriek yet. Reviews will follow in the respective places.