There are many things that are remarkable about Jeff VanderMeer's newest collection "Secret Life", but what is perhaps most remarkable is how in spite of a host of different subjects and thematic approaches, it still fits together as a whole. What exactly that "whole" is is open to question, but whatever it is, it certainly represents arguably the most unique, and certainly one of the most exciting, voices in fiction today.
Actually, it should come as no surprise that VanderMeer can weave so many disparate parts into something comprehensive; while there may be writers with more innate talent, I find it hard to believe that any author is more dedicated to the actual craft of writing. This comes through not only in the insightful endnotes that accompany each story, but also in writing that has plainly been pored over and molded to perfection, much like the mantle being chipped away from a gemstone to reveal the hard, perfect core.
With twenty-one stories that are not directly (but certainly thematically) linked, it would be difficult to review "Secret Life" in its entirety in the space available. Instead, a few general comments, and then some brief comments on a few of the best pieces. First, for those readers who have already encountered VanderMeer's other work, this volume will be a particular treat. Both Ambergris and the world from "Veniss Underground" are heavily represented, but what makes these stories particularly intriguing is that they represent various stages in each world's evolution. For example, "Learning to Leave the Flesh" is set in an Ambergris, but it is not the Ambergris which so delighted readers in "City of Saints and Madmen". There are familiar elements, but it is much more like our own world the baroque marvel that it becomes. Conversely, "Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose" contain very familiar Ambergris elements, but seems to be set long after the era of "City of Saints and Madmen".
Even more provoking is the development of the Veniss world. The first, "The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight" was written when VanderMeer was only seventeen, which is impressive. However, it is only when this story is bumped up against "Balzac's War" which happens hundreds, over even thousands, of years later, can the true breadth of VanderMeer's creative vision be realized. There are also several stories written in the second person, which, while the author never specifically mentions it, must of have contributed immensely to his ability to write the perfectly executed second section of "Veniss Underground".
As for specific stories, there are those who may think this is a cop out, but the best was probably the title piece, "Secret Life". Set in an office building that is a world unto itself, the story is perhaps most engaging for how it makes the mundane seem bizarre and new. Moreover, layered over this bustling little world is the author's characteristic wit, poking fun at the absurdity of the modern workplace, while not being so condescending as to deny it's not something we all need to do. Ultimately, it's a story about seeing the remarkable in everyday things and is probably the best executed of all the pieces.
"The Bone Carver's Tale" is another beautiful piece, which is in a way ironic since it deals with the nature of beauty, as seen through the eyes of a bone carver (surprise, surprise) during a time of war in Southeast Asia. "The General Who is Dead" and "London Burning" are both interesting looks at the ultimate futility of war. While both are brief, they are notable in that the imagery they use is simple without being hackneyed and absolute without being preachy. Finally, there is "Mansions of the Moon (A Cautionary Tale)" which in setting is very reminscent of H. P. Lovecraft, but in style somehow similar to H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine". If I had to pick one story for VanderMeer to develop into a novel, it would probably be this one just because it is so distinct from his other work.
I could go on, but I fear my enthusiasm would risk spoiling the stories for others, particularly when it comes to the Ambergris and Veniss pieces. "Secret Life" will thrill VanderMeer fans even as it ensnares new readers with his utterly unique perspectives (not to mention the dazzling cover art). Moreover, even as "Secret Life" gives a look into VanderMeer's development as a writer, it also offers glimpses of what is to come, including a stand alone (the author's words) excerpt from his recently completed (but not yet published) novel "Shriek: An Afterword". Whether a true champion of the New Weird (if one must classify in genres) or a neophyte, "Secret Life" is another treat from one of the most exciting voices in fiction today.