The Third Bear is an excellent collection of Jeff Vandermeer's category-defying short fiction, filled with stories that are unique, mostly excellent, and often incredibly hard to describe. Asking someone who has read this book (say, a reviewer) what one of the stories is about could well get you a blank stare as a response, or a few mumbled words, or simply "you'll have to read it for yourself." Pinning these stories down in a few words is very hard, not to mention a bit unfair to both the stories and the new reader. In that spirit, I'm going to stay as vague as possible in this review, but please, don't let that stop you from picking up this truly excellent collection.
Jeff Vandermeer has been compared to Kafka, Borges and Nabokov, and the first two of those are definitely appropriate comparisons for this collection. (I couldn't attest to the third one because I'm not much of a Nabokov expert, but I'm sure those critics wouldn't just make it up.) A story like "The Situation" reads like something Kafka might have written if he'd had easy access to the more popular Sixties-era recreational hallucinogenics. And as for Borges -- "Finding Sonoria" is a little gem of a story about a stamp collector, a down and out private detective, and their attempt to find a non-existent country on the basis of a mysterious stamp. If this story were a student, it would probably want to sit next to Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" in the back of the class, so they could pass notes back and forth and mess with the teacher's perception of reality. It also includes one of my favorite lines in the entire book: "Bolger snorted. "You got that right." It was the kind of snort Crake would've expected from a sausage, if a sausage could snort."
These precise, surprising word choices that make you blink, think and then nod somehow help the reader adjust to, and be drawn into, each story's particular brand of strangeness. Be prepared for mostly gradual, but occasionally jolting, changes to your expectations. "The Quickening" features a talking rabbit that adamantly insists it is, in fact, not a rabbit -- which is not the most interesting thing in this story. "Predecessor" reads like the final scene of what would be a chilling -- and very bizarre -- horror/action movie. Trying to puzzle out what the rest of the movie looks like is part of the enjoyment of this chilling story, and its lack of context enhances the surreality of, well, everything in it.
This is also one of those collections where each reader will have his or her own favorite story, and one person's favorite may be someone else's least favorite -- and, maybe more importantly and the entire point of this terribly convoluted sentence, someone's least favorite story may turn into a favorite upon rereading, which happened to me twice as I browsed and re-browsed through the collection for this review. And so, because I don't want to have to eat my words later, I won't list the few stories I currently consider the weaker ones (where "weaker" is anyway meant to be taken as relative to the generally mind-blowing quality of the others) and only list those that, after a few readings, are my favorites:
* "Lost" is a gorgeous prose poem that packs a mighty punch in just five short pages.
* "The Goat Variations" gave me the same kind of existential chill, and almost physical sense of discomfort, as some of Philip K. Dick's better novels.
* The collection's final story, "Appoggiatura," pulls together its bizarre and disparate elements so stunningly at the end that you're almost forced to reread it.
Those 3 stories are listed here in the same order in which they appear in the collection, and after reading every one of them, I quite literally thought: "Okay, this has to be THE story of the collection -- it can't get possibly much better than this." Until the next one, and then the next one, and in between each of them, my mind was quite thoroughly blown more than a handful of times
If you're looking for adjectives and categories, the two on the back cover are as good as any: "surrealist" and "absurdist." Despite fantasy elements in many of the stories, and a few touches of horror, I'd definitely shelve this one with literary fiction rather than SF&F. Whatever box you try to put it in, The Third Bear is simply an excellent collection of short fiction that you're guaranteed to think about long after you turn the final page. Highly recommended.