Borges: Influence and References

Jeff VanderMeer

Author of dozens of ingenious chapbooks, intricately-crafted novellas, and bizarre stories masquerading as histories, Jeff VanderMeer won the World Fantasy Award in 2000 for his novella, The Transformation of Martin Lake, an ironic tale of an artist who one day receives "an invitation to a beheading." Believing the letter to be the prelude to a commission, Lake decides to attend the purported masquerade, even though the city has been recently plunged into chaos by the death of Voss Bender, the century's greatest composer and de facto ruler of the city. As Bender's fanatical followers and rabid enemies tumble into the streets with daggers and clubs, the frog-masked Lake announces his presence at the appointed address. There, in a luxurious mansion in the seediest part of town, three mysterious figures wearing sinister bird masks reveal the exact nature of Lake's "commission."
Largely unfolding in the third person, the narrative sections of Transformation are framed by passages "excerpted" from another book, a future analysis of Lake's work written by a hunchbacked art critic named Janice Shriek. Filled with typical critic-jargon, and quoting liberally from other works about Lake – who will one day become the city's most famous painter – as the "real" story unfolds, we realize that Shriek and her colleagues couldn't be more woefully misguided about the underlying meaning of Lake's art: especially his masterpiece, a painting entitled Invitation to a Beheading....

This story, like much of VanderMeer's work, takes place in fantastical city named "Ambergris," an ageless, Byzantine sprawl populated by lewd saints, artistic madmen, and philosophers at war with their own obsessions. Although crafted with the same lush attention to detail Fritz Leiber brought to Lankhmar, Ambergris belongs more to the world of Peake's Gormenghast or Borges' Tlön than any realm of traditional, genre-based fantasy. In Ambergris, VanderMeer has crafted a dark mirror to reflect (and often distort) our own conceptions of reality, bringing into focus the many ways the human imagination tries to make sense of an often senseless universe. In the city of Ambergris, art, science, religion, and history are in constant strife, their respective proponents waging war through satirical broadsheets, desperate chapbooks, café gossip, whispered innuendo, and even grand opera – and occasionally, the sudden violence of an assassin's knife. At stake seems to be the territory between madness and sanity, but trapped within the surreal labyrinth of the city – where a painting is as powerful as a legion, and even the bankers go armed – telling the difference between the two is often impossible. Dangerously alluring and invitingly complicit, Ambergris hatches and broods obsessions with an almost sentient awareness, a hothouse cultivating a citizenry like a collection of exotic orchids: unique, fragile, and savagely beautiful.
The Borgesian aspects of VanderMeer's fiction go deeper than a sympathy with Tlön. As might be gleaned from the above summary of Transformation, VanderMeer's entire body of work resonates with a Borgesian sensibility, a debt he pays by naming Ambergris' central bookstore "The Borges Bookstore." On one level, VanderMeer cheerfully employs literary conceits that any Borges enthusiast will find happily familiar: the creation (and often reviewing) of countless imaginary books, the use of quasi-academic footnotes and unreliable bibliographies, the inclusion of cyphers and codes, and perhaps most importantly, the subversion of his own narrational authority by providing alternative possibilities and explanations for fictional events. (One favored VanderMeer device is to have two equally colorful characters refute eachother's theories over the course of numerous stories, glossaries, and footnotes – often providing new information that changes one's perception of an earlier story. By the end of
City of Saints and Madmen, you have the impression that not even the author knows the full truth!)
While all these elements are certainly significant to the topic of "Borges Influence," VanderMeer's fiction brims over playfully with numerous other literary allusions as well, including Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Thomas Pynchon, H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and Michael Moorcock. But VanderMeer's writing is far beyond simple derivation, and the guileless transparency with which he displays his influences disarms any charges of plagiarism. However, there is something more profound about his affinity with Jorge Luis Borges, something that goes past devious bibliographies and the sparring of obscure cults. Ambergris is a creation that bears a kinship with the Argentine in all his phases, from the fevered bard of Buenos Aires to the artificer of literary mazes to the blind poet enchanted by dead alphabets. In many ways, Ambergris shares topography with Borges' vision of a semi-mythical Buenos Aires, home of fate-haunted gauchos, visionary artists, and Qabbalistic murders; a place where the streets seem timeless and the very air is charged with a mystical sense of presence. The cultural world of Ambergris, with its composer-tyrants, deranged historians, and eccentric literary circles is a world not unrecognizable as the idealization of Borges' beloved café culture, as mythologized and parodied in his own essays and stories. It is not difficult to imagine the painter Xul Solar sipping tea with Martin Lake, or Silas Haslam charting the subterranean city of mushrooms for his latest treatise on labyrinths. Take this entry from "The Ambergris Glossary" included with City of Saints and Madmen:

BURNING LEAVES. A controversial arts journal, known for publishing macabre, disturbing fictions and illustrations. Published by the Borges Bookstore until the editors printed their infamous Black Tracts, which included a perverse "map" of Voss Bender's naked body, diagramming the various worth of different parts and with short stories written about each part (most infamous: Sporlender's "Tree with Nuts"). Since then, the journal has been funded entirely by advertising and news-stand sales. Burning Leaves published the first works by such future luminaries as Louis Verden, Nicholas Sporlender, Martin Lake, and Janice Shriek, as well as the obscene mechanical diagrams of the eccentric inventor known simply as Porfal. The premiere issue featured Corvid Quork's short story "The Madness of Bird Masks."

One can almost hear Bustos Domecq sharpening a pencil for his next review. And lest anyone think, "Oh dear, not another tedious fantasy glossary," let me point out that textually, the Glossary is itself part of VanderMeer's fictional milieu, and reads like a microcosm of Ambergrisian politics. "Written" by Duncan Shriek, an hilariously bitter historian (and brother to art critic Janice), the copy "included" in the novel has been somewhat compromised by the spurious entries of X, a mysterious killer who resides in an Ambergrisian sanitarium and might possibly be Jeff VanderMeer himself. Louis Verden, we later discover, is a member of a cult that venerates a small roadside flower; though the cult is currently locked in an internecine conflict on how to best rearrange the calendar to account for leap year. Porfal? Inventor of the "honey-powered Orgasm Machine." As for looking up "The Madness of Bird Masks," good luck – though the careful reader will discern that the story must relate somehow to Martin Lake's paintings, which are of course "reviewed" by Janice Shriek as sidebars to VanderMeer's novella, The Transformation of Martin Lake. Though given VanderMeer's tendency to write additional Ambergris materials under the guise of his own fictional characters, don't be surprised if an upcoming Prime publication bears the title Black Tracts.
To cite another example of VanderMeer's general Borgesian spirit, here's the Glossary entry on the Nimblytod Tribes, which employ a poison with distinct, Zahir-like qualities:

NIMBLYTOD TRIBES. This tree-dwelling people, wiry but strong, has inhabited the southern rainforest for centuries, weaving their bird-like huts in the crooks of sturdy branches. Oblivious to the efforts of Truffidian missionaries to convert them, the Nimblytod still worship the sacred moon-rat and the plumed thrush hen. Members of the tribe can make flute-like sounds without instruments and the concerts that often break the silence of the tree cover can seem "like the songs of beautiful angels," as one shaken missionary put it. The Nimblytod confirm their independence by blowdarting anyone who enters their territory.... The poison used in the blowdarts results in a prolonged period of fever, followed by a malaise and then a sudden and intense passion for whatever object the sufferer happens to gaze upon at that moment. Eventually death and dementia follow, like sullen cousins.

It's a passage that also encapsulates the best of VanderMeer's style, which combines whimsy and dry humor with a very real sense of beauty, mystery, and terror. Indeed, it is with good reason that VanderMeer has named his eternal city after the "most secret and valuable part of the whale," that nearly obscene substance found in the dying leviathan, ridiculous and priceless, produced by undigested squid-beaks and transformed into perfumes and aphrodisiacs. As Melville writes in Moby-Dick: "Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing?"

Additional Information

VanderMeer's Official Page -- Details VanderMeer's many interlocking works.

VanderWorld -- The author's cheerfully whimsical homepage.

Selected Works by Jeff VanderMeer

Novels

Veniss Underground
Nightshade Books, 2003, Hardcover.
A science fiction novel.

Veniss Underground
Prime, 2003, Paperback.
A science fiction novel.

City of Saints and Madmen
Prime, 2002, Hardcover. (Introduction by Michael Moorcock.)
This work collects much of the Ambergris material into one volume.

City of Saints and Madmen
Wildside Press, 2001, Paperback. (Introduction by Michael Moorcock.)
This work collects much of the Ambergris material into one volume.

Collections

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases (With Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and China Mieville.)
Nightshade, 2003, Paperback.

Album Zutique (With Elizabeth Hand, Jeffrey Ford)
Ministry of Whimsy, 2003, Paperback.

Leviathan 3
Prime, 2002, Paperback.


--Allen B. Ruch
2 May 2003

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