Jeff VanderMeer: FINCH

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
Underland Press 2009
339 pages
2/5 stars

Finch was my third foray into VanderMeer, and my second to the world of Ambergris. Previously, I have read City of Saints and Madmen, a collection of short stories and other strange miscellanea related to the creepy and weird city of Ambergris – these I liked immensely – and “Errata”, an equally strange short story that operates on various levels and makes so many references you can interpret it for weeks and weeks. This I enjoyed a great deal, too.

Therefore I found Finch a disappointment. It wasn’t strange or menacing enough – and I prefer my strange to be menacing. Part a hard-boiled detective story, part a journey of self-discovery, Finch follows the eponymous detective as he tries to solve the mystery of two dead bodies found in an apartment. Although adequate as a detective story, I would have liked more weirdness. Of course, this just reminds me not to go into books with expectations.

Just as a general rule, I found this book very hard to concentrate in. I tend to read with some sort of noise in the background, but immersing into Finch only seemed possible in complete silence. The sentences are short, which makes surprisingly slow reading, and it requires quite a lot of effort not to lose your place. This style plays well into the hard-boiled detective aspect, and I can’t in good conscience fault a book for demanding the reader’s attention, but at least at this point in time it wasn’t what I wanted.

With VanderMeer, it is very difficult to say what is intentional and what is not, and it’s in the pondering of these matters that I think the true pleasure of his fiction lies (although, again, I prefer the just plain weird and absurd). There is a Latin sentence in the novel that is raised as central but is not translated, nor does Finch know what it means, until well past halfway point. It is not a difficult sentence and I’m sure many would recognise it; is this intentional? Is the reader supposed to understand it when Finch does not, and what does this imply about the way the novel is intended to be read? This question caught me, personally; there are others just as worth devoting brain space to.

The Latin phrase reminded me strongly of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale; in general, Finch reminded me of Miéville’s The City and The City, which I also initially didn’t like but which improves upon analysis and thought. I would say that if you’re big on The City and The City, give Finch a go. They share an ambiance, the strangeness of the setting, and the question about what is the actual focus on the novel.

One more technical note – I’m not sure if you are supposed to read City of Saints and Madmen before or after Finch; it probably doesn’t really matter, but it probably changes the reading experience. City of Saints and Madmen gives the history of Ambergris, which is referred to in Finch. Similarly, it seems that reading Shriek: An Afterword would be good before picking up this one. I haven’t, and I feel I would have gotten more out of this novel if I had read Shriek. But I would not say knowing all the background is absolutely necessary.

The two-star rating is for the fact that although it is an alright book, I had a hard time immersing and concentrating on it apart from the hour or two I could devote to it without disturbance.

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