The novel opens with Jonathan Lambshead inheriting his grandfather’s house with the stipulation that he catalog everything in the basement, which, having looked at the table of contents of The Cabinet of Curiosities anthology, contains many strange and fantastical items (The Thing in the Jar, The Singular Taffy Puller, Lord Dunsany’s Teapot). There are also three doors and some hastily written instructions not to use door two and three until he was sure he knew the way back from door number one. Soon his slightly older school friends, Danny and Rack (sister and brother) show up to help him with the task. But there is a strangely intelligent seeming marmot, and a couple of other skulkers. And of course they end up going through door number one, which leads to an alternate world called Aurora. And here’s where Vandermeer’s penchant for deep weirdness really kicks in.
In Aurora, Europe is in chaos. An Aleister Crowley from yet another alternate dimension has taken over much of Europe. He is nearly entirely insane and is an actual powerful wizard here, or at least, in conjunction with his familiar, Wretch, has tried to take control using powerful magic with the disembodied head of Napoleon as their military commander. Jules Verne is their inventor/weapons maker.* They have mechanically altered elephants and alligators. They have fighters who are people from other dimensions who got trapped and faded away. And those aren’t the wildest parts. Fighting against them among others are The Republic, various freelance magicians (or at least magicians with unclear motives), talking animals (particularly marmots) that practice the “old magic,” and the Order of the Third Door. Thackery T. worked for this last, as did Jonathan’s mother. It is an interdimensional organization that tries to maintain some sense of order in the multiverse as the Builders (the mysterious beings who made the doors between dimensions). There is a widespread war and it is not at all clear initially who is fighting whom. There are celestial beasts who are nearly mythical beings. There is a Golden Sphere which starts seeming like a macguffin but turns into something else entirely. Jonathan and his friends are drawn into this fight.
That much information may seem like spoilers, but there is more than enough invention to go around. I mentioned earlier that a young adult reading this would need a robust vocabulary. There are also many historical and literary allusions. I’m certain that I didn’t catch them all, so that’s probably not a problem, given how much I enjoyed the book. The whole thing moves at a quick pace, and even if you took a “I’ll catch what I can” approach it’s an immensely rewarding experience. Vandermeer has always had a sense of humor, but here there is a playfulness that works very well for the most part. Vandermeer’s admiration for Vladimir Nabokov is apparent in his earlier work (Shriek: An Afterward is the most Nabokovian book I’ve read not written by Nabokov, which is one of the reasons it’s my favorite of Vandermeer’s novels.) Here he takes a Nabokovian playfulness around language, full of puns and allusions, to an extent I don’t remember him using before. He mixes that with a calculated silliness aimed at the younger audience. I don’t know how that would play to an actual young adult, but to this middle-aged man it mostly worked.* There are descriptions that amount to great silly sight gags. And underneath that silliness and the absurdity of the situations, Vandermeer’s gift for horror shines through as do his major themes, especially his concerns for the environment.
I go into every Vandermeer book expecting to like it, and he has not let me down yet among the 10 or so that I’ve read. As much as I love Dead Astronauts, I’m glad that he has not abandoned narrative. It’s almost as if he threw all the narrative he’s been holding back into this one! The world he creates here is as imaginative as anything he’s done before. And even though it is 600+ pages, he made it into a place where that felt lived in with more going on outside of the action of the book. This is the first of a duology, and I really look forward to the sequel. I would put this behind the Ambergris books, Borne and Dead Astronauts, but this is up there with the rest of his consistently excellent work.
Library Books, Gifts, Rereads Etc 2020 8/35.
*Kafka, Charlemagne, Alfred Kuben, and many more also put in appearances, though from various alternate dimensions and having lived drastically different lives.
**One character kept referring to his sister as “sister blister” which annoyed me every time, but didn’t ruin the book at all. Again, I don’t know how that would play to the age group this is marketed towards.