Monkeybrain, 2004, 335 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 1-932265-11-2
Jeff VanderMeer has finally hit critical mass in the past few years, with the publication of a few books by major publishers and widespread attention from the SF blogosphere. Naturally, this “overnight success” only counts if you haven’t been paying attention. If that’s the case, his nonfiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is ample occasion to catch up on VanderMeer’s career so far.
The pieces included here roughly cover four types of writing: Convention reports, autobiographical pieces, reviews and criticism. In a stroke of editorial genius, convention reports bookend the three other sections, offering an evolving portrait of VanderMeer. From the brash young man who storms into Atlanta’s Georgiacon 1990 finding fault with everyone he meets, to the seasoned pro who spends a good chunk of 2002 on the road with family and friends, this book could have been subtitled “Evolution of an Author” if the current “Excursions into the worlds of science fiction, fantasy & horror” wasn’t descriptive enough.
The book works better if you already know and admire VanderMeer’s other publications. The book’s first section is about the writer and his work, and is filled with references to his existing bibliography: A lengthy article alone details the problems that VanderMeer had in realizing his vision of City of Saints & Madmen with a POD publisher: an odyssey of several years and nightmarish efforts. I found it fascinating, but then again there’s a copy of the book sitting on my shelves. Knowing all about VanderMeer’s work is much easier now that he’s being published by major publishers such as Tor and Bantam Spectra, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the rest of the book. It helps that VanderMeer writes with clarity and enthusiasm: Chances are that even if you only know the outline of his career, you ‘ll be able to follow along.
Most of the VanderMeer-specific references become less important in the latter two sections of the collection anyway: The “Reviews” section should be of interest to any literary fantasy fan, with short takes on a variety of pieces from various SF&F novels to individual issues of magazines. As a reviewer, VanderMeer is well-informed and fearless: as a result, it’s perhaps easier to enjoy his take-down of Martin Scott’s Thraxas than his admiration of M. John Harrison’s Light. But he certainly knows what makes a story tick, as demonstrated by his even-handed considerations on China Miéville’s The Scar and Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward. A trio of “Read This!” pieces for the New York Review of Science-Fiction offers quick take on a variety of topics.
The “Criticism” section is hit-and-miss, though I suspect that this has more to do with my lack of knowledge in classic fantasy literature than to any failing in VanderMeer’s own pieces. To his credit, he has managed to convince me that I should have a look at Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet. Unfortunately, he hasn’t managed the same trick with Angela Carter in either of his lengthy appreciations. I was rather more inspired by the polemics “Horror: Alive or Dead?” and “The Death of the Imagination?” —though I came away from the latter convinced that I suck as a reviewer. Not that this will ever stop me.
But let’s go back to the convention reports, because they’re the pieces who glue the book together. Four report, four stops along the way of VanderMeer’s career. I must admire his guts in allowing the first two convention report being republished presumably as-is: Sometimes, they read much like a lengthy version of “Here’s What I Hated During My Summer Holidays”. VanderMeer takes potshots at a bunch of people, is dismissive of the convention scene and can’t figure out what he has in common with those people. But those are the adventures of a young writer: The latter two reports are far more generous, and reflect VanderMeer’s growing stature in the field. What’s more, all reports are very well-written, and the first two contain their moments of laugh-aloud hilarity. They say things that may occur to anyone stuck at bad conventions and even lousier panels. No fantasy convention, after all, can withstand the scrutiny of a non-fan.
With time, VanderMeer has become somewhat more diplomatic, though not entirely so: A look at his current on-line presence shows that he remains blessedly candid about what he dislikes and channels the more outrageous stuff through his “Evil Monkey” alter-ego. Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is not just a glimpse at his growth as a writer, but it’s the kind of book fit to transform any existing reader into a fan. I may never know as much about fantasy as VanderMeer does, or ever write anywhere near his level, but I’m glad that he’s out there figuring it out and showing the way. With luck, we’ll get another non-fiction book collection from him soon.