The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer
(Necropolitan Press, $7.99, 84 pages, paperback; published 1999, received 20 November 1999.)
You don't even need to open this fictional travel guide(1) to know you're in for a treat. On the back cover Paul Di Filippo provides one of the most entertaining puffs I've encountered; further down the back cover, Brian Stableford writes that "the greatest challenge facing any modern author is to produce a tale unlike any that has ever been produced before, but Jeff has met that challenge head on and answered it triumphantly".
So immediately, you know you're in for something out of the literary ordinary, something most likely very funny and very good. You wouldn't be wrong in any of these assumptions.
The Early History is intriguing and captivating from the outset, as we read of Cappan Manzikert fleeing a fearsome rival and arriving at the site of the city he will found (a city with which you may be familiar as the setting of some of VanderMeer's other works); and Samuel Tonsure, an itinerant monk captured by Manzikert, perhaps the vanished patriarch himself, although VanderMeer's fictional author, the Ambergrisian historian Duncan Shriek, argues eloquently against this theory in his footnotes.
In The Early History, VanderMeer takes the art of the footnote to new heights - indeed, perhaps half of this slim book consists of supplementary material in the form of footnotes and glossary. The first sentence alone has three nested footnotes, taking up more than half of the first page: there's a footnote explaining that the designation "Captain" had become corrupted to "Cappan" due to the rough southern accent of Manzikert's people; that footnote has its own footnote, explaining the purpose of the footnotes; and finally the footnote's footnote has its own footnote, explaining that the interaction between footnotes and the main text may be a little confusing - "This is the price to be paid by those who would rouse an elderly historian from his slumber behind a teaching desk in order to coerce him to write for a common travel guide series."
The history of Manzikert and the city he founds is all recounted in Shriek's wonderfully comic, fusty-academic voice. This guide is a blend of careful research and prejudice presented as historical fact, full of curmudgeonly asides about rival historians - "We could wish that Lacond had done more research on the subject before venturing an opinion, but then we would be bereft of his marvelous stupidity".
Necropolitan Press is to be praised for bringing out such an excitingly different work(2), just as Duncan Shriek deserves to be recognised for the genius he is, and Mr VanderMeer should be praised for his sterling efforts in bringing Shriek's work to the world.
The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek is published by Necropolitan Press.
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© Keith Brooke 5 February 2000