As I rarely discard a book, it should thus come as no surprise that I have overflowing shelves of novels I’ve once read, enjoyed, savoured and then swore up-and-down-back-and-forth that I was going to re-read someday. Alas, it is someday. I’m spending whole of 2016 revisiting my book collection, digging back into books I read once, but that I haven’t read (or listened to) in at least four years. So, we’re about to find out what was worth reading… twice.
It’s been almost exactly ten years since I last read City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer. I seem to remember it was this random, pre-kid evening at the bookstore find, indulgent purchase, a trade paperback that caught my curiosity and held my attention for a quick read.
I don’t want to imply that City of Saints and Madmen is anything more than it is. It’s a neat novel, or so I remember it, scattered and strange, and stranger still even after you got over the initial strange bit. It is poetic and flowing in parts, stilted and chaotic in others, a string of very different beads strung along a line to make a curious and eclectic necklace of a story. And I remember having one of those epiphany moments after reading it, like: huh, you can write a story like that? Because telling a scattered story that way had never occurred to me until then.
And then I tried it. And it’s not easy.
City of Saints and Madmen was one of the short list of books I had when I thought of this whole little re-reading project. It was the one that I constantly saw there on my shelf thinking, damn, if I only had the time or the excuse to read that again. But I never did.
So now I am.
But how to describe it? After ten years I don’t know that I can, appropriately. I know, for example, that it left a curious impression on me. It was the kind of story that felt like you had travelled to a place and were spending a few hours checking out pieces of the local culture, a tourist on a vacation passing through the most bizarre world but seeing the sights because that’s what you do, thumbing through pages of the local history in your hotel then talking to some old dude in the lobby before catching one of those documentary films they play on a loop at the nearby museum for which you paid twelve dollars to get in before realizing it was two rooms of old junk and a gift shop and you were going to watch the damn documentary because you were going to get your twelve dollars worth. It’s like that.
So I am re-reading it, and I feel like I’m packing for a trip back to Ambergris, the City of Saints and Madmen that has haunted my memory and my bookshelf for the last decade.