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Disappointing short novel by a leading light of 'The New Weird'
on 3 June 2011
'Veniss Underground' is a short novel by Jeff VanderMeer, a leading light in the 'New Weird' subgenre of fantasy. VanderMeer first came to attention as a writer of short stories, but has written other novels and multimedia works, and has a considerable profile as an editor and blogger.
If 'The New Weird' means anything - and meaningful definitions are hard to come by - it appears to mean a form of hyper-romantic fantasy that draws at will on urban fantasy, dark fantasy, SF, horror, noir and thriller elements. Its direct ancestors include Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter and, even more pertinently, M. John Harrison, whose 'Viriconium' stories are the template for 'Veniss' and similar work by other writers - notably China Mieville. More generally, this is fleshy fantasy, post-Cronenberg, post-Barker, post-Gaiman.
This makes 'Veniss' sound more attractive than it is. In practice, VanderMeer lacks the imagination of the writers mentioned, and especially Harrison's acute feel for tone, essential when dealing with deliberately mannered prose. The brief opening section of the book is quite horribly overwritten; almost a textbook example of how to alienate a reader by being simultaneously pretentious, obscure and coy. I almost abandoned the book at this point. I wonder how many readers have never progressed further?
The second and third sections are more lucidly written, but what emerges, disappointingly, is a standard fantasy narrative, loosely derived from the classical myth of Orpheus's descent into the underworld. VanderMeer packs a great deal of hectic incident and implication into a relatively small space, but as a result much of what happens feels underexplained, unmotivated and repetitious - as though 'weirdness' (and a very adolescent, Dali-Bosch idea of weirdness) for its own sake was the governing aesthetic.
This borrowed visual imagination means that VanderMeer's Veniss never makes an indelible impression, resembling as it does too many similar creations in familiar films and books. The emotional temperature too is operatically overwrought throughout, as though the fate of the universe were at stake, but the characters are so thinly imagined that it's never clear why we should care about them.
I understand that VanderMeer has written better elsewhere, but 'Veniss Underground' left me with little enthusiasm to investigate further.