Thursday, 16 September 2010
‘The Third Bear’ – Jeff Vandermeer (Tachyon Press)
I can’t remember where I read it but I seem to remember reading, fairly recently, that most authors hate being asked where they get their ideas from. Can’t say that I blame them really. If I was an author, I’d be wanting people to enjoy what’s written on the page rather than rushing off and deconstructing it. That’s the thing about us readers though, isn’t it? If something really works for us then we want to get right inside the text so we can take it to pieces and see how it all worked. I’m like that most times but every now and then I get the feeling that a book (or an author) is best left to say its piece on its own terms. ‘The Third Bear’ is one of those books and Jeff Vandermeer is one of those authors. I don’t want to know where Jeff Vandermeer gets his ideas from, just in case I ever meet one of them in the cold light of day. Having read ‘The Third Bear’, I’m also rather enjoying the feeling of discomfort that the book left me with...
Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘The Third Bear’ is a deeply unsettling collection of short fiction, at least that’s what I found. Seriously... Some of the stories in this collection are still inside my head, chewing away at my mind, leaving me speechless but overwhelmed by an intense feeling of ‘what the f...?’
Whether it’s the background, plot or characters, there is something in each and every one of Vandermeer’s tales that will make you go ‘hang on...’ You might even shiver a little. I did.
‘The Situation’ was the chief culprit here; a nightmarish tale of office politics in a world gone utterly insane. The workings of any office would make for a nice slice of weird fiction at any time and Vandermeer seems to emphasise this fact by making both the business and its surroundings a real exercise of the surreal. Everyone has fallen foul of an office clique and Vandermeer’s approach, in ‘The Situation’, really lays on the paranoia that can come out of this. Not only was this the case but some of the vivid imagery employed here (giant lizards crawling through a ruined city and the child eating manta ray) really stuck in my head. They’re still there.
Vandermeer isn’t afraid to bombard his readers with images ranging from the merely grotesque to the outright disturbing in order to convey his message. What is his message though? Here’s the thing... I’m not entirely sure. In his afterword, Vandermeer says that ‘The Third Bear’ is a book designed to be read over and over again whereby the connections between the stories will become ever clearer. Maybe I should have read the book a couple of times first as, apart from the obvious link between ‘The Surgeon’s Tale’ and ‘Appoggiatura’, nothing really sprang out at me. My thinking was though that what if I read ‘The Third Bear’ a dozen times and nothing sprang out at all? I was going to end up writing about it at some point so it may as well be after the first read :o)
One thing that did creep up on me though (and isn’t so much a direct link between stories as it is something that they all have in common) is how Vandermeer’s definition of the ‘weird’ helps to make all these tales such a deliciously chilling experience. In Vandermeer’s world, there is no reason or rationale behind something weird happening, it just does. The beautiful thing about ‘The Quickening’, for example, is that you never find out anything about Sensio and why he can talk. Sensio just talks (albeit only when he wants to) and the reader just has to deal with the consequences. Same deal with ‘The Secret Life of Shane Hamill’. Again, we never find out anything about Shane other than what he’s ultimately capable of. This total lack of reason emphasises the weirdness in the best possible way. Weirdness... just is. If there’s no logic behind it then it can happen anywhere and at any time; that’s why Vandermeer’s tales are so unsettling. You come away with the feeling that it could happen to you at any time...
What also emphasises the weirdness is the way in which people seek to impose their own order on what is happening to them. Not only is the contrast impressive to see but you also come away with a keen sense of the affect that these events have on the human mind. Some will accept what is happening to them in the way that only certain people can; the child in ‘The Quickening’ again as well as a man waking in a strange city only to realise that he’s exactly where he should be (‘Lost’). Vandermeer himself is a great example of this in ‘Errata’, if you’ve been writing ‘weird fiction’ for a while then I guess you’ll be prepared for whatever comes your way...
Other people can’t accept anything outside their own normality and will seek to impose that on their surroundings. The two characters in ‘Finding Sonoria’ are great examples of this although their journeys take them in two entirely different directions. The sharpshooter, in ‘Three Days in a Border Town’, also adopts this approach. Her reality is based around her husband and she will find him no matter what the mirage like landscape throws at her.
When you add all these stories (and the rest) together what you have is a collection that the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson might have written if they really wanted to mess with the heads of small children. Vandermeer more than sets his stall out, in this vein, with ‘The Third Bear’ short story as well as ‘The Predecessor’ (a story that may have been to blame for the disturbed nights I’ve had since reading it...)
Meaning may have eluded me in certain tales (I’m looking at ‘Appoggiatura’ here) but the collection as a whole is so deliciously dark that I will be sure to return and see what I come across next. There wasn’t a single tale in ‘The Third Bear’ that didn’t resonate in me at some level or another, powerful storytelling accompanied by gorgeous images. Highly recommended.
Ten out of Ten