Jeff VanderMeer’s Veniss Underground Reveals the World by Breaking Its Boundaries
Charles Yu Reflects on a New Edition of Vandermeer's Powerfully Weird First Novel
Some books teach you how to read them. Lost at first, you look around for markers, footholds, anything that might provide solid ground, some basic sense of orientation. As you gradually acclimate to the environment, the particulars of this new place—its strange sounds, smells, colors—sharpen into focus, revealing patterns and dynamics, fundamentals beneath the surface, love or anxiety or gravity.
Oh, I see, the reader says: this is supposed to be the world. Maybe not the world as it is, right now or right here. But a map can be drawn, plotting the course from A to B, from their realm to ours. What initially seems unfamiliar becomes recognizable, and with that recognition comes reassurance. The book offers consolation: the world may be broken but, at least in this small corner, the pieces remain comprehensible.
Veniss Underground is not one of those books.
Like its author, it is rarer, weirder, more ambitious.
In Veniss, a reader can see in VanderMeer’s first novel many of the preoccupations found in his later work, the conceptual DNA of a larger project already present, pluripotent stem cells that will go on proliferating for years into many more books, many more beings and worlds and ideas. From the biotech chimeras of the Borne books, to the towers of living flesh in The Southern Reach Trilogy, to the manta rays and other fantastical creatures of his story collection The Third Bear, the freedom and boldness that characterize VanderMeer’s inventions were part of his style from the start.
He is interested in life-forms, in every sense of the word. Life, not only in its known forms but in all the unknown ones too. Undiscovered, unimagined, unimaginable. VanderMeer is one of our chief architects of ineffable structures, our chief design officer of impossible creatures.In Veniss, a reader can see in VanderMeer’s first novel many of the preoccupations found in his later work, the conceptual DNA of a larger project already present.
As he writes in Annihilation, “What can you do when your five senses are not enough?” In Veniss, it seems VanderMeer used all five senses and at least a couple more, conceiving of new morphologies, destroying our categories and our taxonomies, and from the fragments constructing new ones. New organisms, with new structures and features.
External anatomies that are difficult to visualize even in our minds—which is frustrating and then challenging and then rewarding. He wants to break us of our assumptions, our received notions of the possible shapes that life can take.
But in addition to biology, the study of morphology has another meaning as well—in linguistics—and VanderMeer is interested in this sense of the word, too. Words, how they’re formed, their relationship to other words. The constituent units from which we build syntax, principles of grammar that we use to construct strands of words to transmit information, or even meaning.
Like Nicholas, the book’s first narrator, VanderMeer is a “slang jockey,” forging a new lexicon for a new world. Regular old English won’t do. On a sentence level, Veniss is a laboratory, a grand experiment in recombinant DNA. Of Nicola’s job description, we learn that “She programs the free market now.”
VanderMeer has a way of doing this kind of sly world building. A simple phrase, casually dropped at the end of a passage, conjuring occupations, industries, economies, raising a whole set of questions. But he doesn’t indulge or dilute or even slow down for exposition. Dayton Central is a high-density reality, and we’re on to the next thing without so much as a hint.
In a larger structural sense, too, Veniss is an experiment in form: Nicholas, Nicola, Shadrach. First person, second person, third. Three sections, three narrators, three points of view.
The cumulative effect of this is that Veniss becomes the stuff of myth: surreal, faraway, shrouded in thick layers of atmosphere. In Veniss, as in much of VanderMeer’s other work, we’re far, far away from the adjacent possible:
Once, we were close and close-knit, but now we are unmoored islands, each alone, each a separate planet, drifting farther and farther away, content to turn ever inward….This is no idle solipsism; it has taken on the fragile brightness of truth. Cities turned from cities, self-devouring. Governments fragmenting into fragments of fragments. Entertainment become a solitary diversion. Solo adventures.
We’re deep into VanderMeer territory now. The new weird. Things you haven’t seen before or even thought before. Places that feel like you can’t even dream yourself into. Places of “dreamy dancing light” and “crackling air—fizzy, dry, electric” where we watch as the author “manipulate[s] reality into new configurations.” A place where “the world opens up and closes and opens up, and you are trapped between, of the world, not of the world.” It’s a world molting, changing, in between forms, formless, a riot of chaos and abundance.
This is what VanderMeer does. Call it experimental morphology, practiced at the highest level. He deconstructs forms, linguistic or anatomical, deconstructs received notions of what shapes life can take. He rips apart the beasts and the fowl, man and animal, flora and fauna, breaking them down to the raw ingredients and says: What can we make with this?In a world of upheaval—political, social, natural—Jeff VanderMeer makes destabilizing work for an unstable world.
In doing so, VanderMeer never settles for the tempting comforts of easy sensemaking. He is a writer unafraid of the full messiness of life, sensitized to the profound mystery of it, who doesn’t seek to reduce that messiness or mystery. As VanderMeer himself writes in his one-of-a-kind craft compendium, Wonderbook:
Especially when creating imaginary worlds, it is easy to think strictly in terms of making the unfamiliar familiar. The reader must have an understanding of the setting that allows them to enjoy your story or novel. But in describing your setting, you may want to be careful not to tamper with an essential strangeness or inexplicable quality that we often find in the real world. You control the extent of what you make known and what you keep mysterious.
Where others might narrow the field of vision, seek to frame things for unearned clarity, VanderMeer resists the impulse. The natural world is vaster and richer and weirder than we can comprehend, and in VanderMeer’s work the harder and messier truth prevails over false consolations or simplicity.
The discipline is what sets him apart—that and a willingness to try something very hard: to actually shift point of view. Away from our solipsism, not just as individuals but as a species. To attempt to escape the trap of our own cognition, step away from the tiny keyhole through which humans see the world—our necessarily anthropocentric perceptive—and try to see the world in radically different ways.
Even if ultimately he knows it’s futile. As he writes in Hummingbird Salamander, “Some things remain mysterious even if you think about them all the time.”
As he recounts in the afterword to the first edition of Veniss Underground, this book almost didn’t make it. It took a powerful, perhaps even mystical experience for the author to get past his own struggle to visualize the setting.
My future wife, Ann, and I visited England, where I discovered York Minster….York Minster became my grand epiphany, perhaps the most visionary experience I have ever had while writing a story or novel. As soon as we entered the cathedral—a place older than Westminster—and I traced the path of the columns up to the stunningly high ceiling, the little hairs on my arms lifted, and I shivered.
It seems fitting that such an unclassifiable work, from a one-of-a-kind writer, would only make it into our world through an unexplainable moment of inspiration. VanderMeer writes with all of the sensory apparatuses we ordinary human writers have, plus some additional equipment, it seems—invisible antennae, maybe, or an extra layer of receptors on his skin.
Otherwise it’s hard to imagine how a work like Veniss, a place like Dayton Central, a character like Quin, comes into existence. As he has said: it wrote him. This also feels appropriately creepy, the idea that the boundary between the writer and the words written, between the person and the thing, subject and inanimate object, is not as well-defined as we’d like to believe.
The fluidity of boundaries in general (in nature, in species, in genres, in bodies and selves) is just one example of VanderMeer’s influence—through his writing, his aesthetic sensibilities, and his work as an editor (together with his wife, Ann)—in finding, encouraging, and amplifying the voices of other writers who work in liminal spaces, exploring and crossing and sometimes erasing boundaries.
In a world of upheaval—political, social, natural—Jeff VanderMeer makes destabilizing work for an unstable world. He is unafraid of monstrous complexity, because with it comes true possibility and even wonder. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with two short excerpts from Veniss:
All systems atrophy. All systems die. The fish is a system. Quin is a system. The meerkats are a system. There are too many systems. Too much confusion. Something has gone wrong. The systems are at war.
Thousands of creatures lived in these pools. Staring down into the miniature ecosystems—the sky a lathe of boiling blue above the waves that, foaming white, crushed themselves against the blackened rock—made Bunadeo feel less isolated, less removed.
Copyright © 2003, 2023 by VanderMeer Creative, Inc. Foreword copyright © 2023 by Charles Yu. All rights reserved.
Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer is available via Picador.