BOOK REVIEW Finch – Jeff Vandermeer

Not a fun guy to be with

Author: Jeff Vandermeer
Publisher: Corvus  * 352 pages * £16.99
ISBN: 978-1-84887-763-4 * 1 August 2010
Also available in paperback (£12.99)

If Finch had been a slushpile submission by an unknown, one suspects the reader’s report would’ve been: “Basic premise – humanity enslaved by evil Nazi mushrooms – is silly. Story dull and confusing. Characters one-dimensional, unconvincing. Ambience production-line noir. A cross-genre cliche archive. Also, this guy can’t write English. Not for us.”

But Finch is by multiple award winner Jeff Vandermeer, hailed by Tad Williams and Michael Moorcock as the future of rock & roll. So what gives?

We know from Vandermeer’s other work than he can write English real good when he chooses to. Why, therefore. Does. He. Write like this, sentences. Without verbs. Punctuation seemingly. At. Random? Presumably because he aims to force the reader to perceive the action in the same disjointed, erratic, unreliable way as his characters perceive the shattered, surreal world of Ambergris. Nice idea, like the auteur-director’s hand-held camera. It may work for you, or it may get up your nose really quickly and distract you irrecoverably from the narrative.

Let’s pass over the mushrooms for now; presumably it’s a drug thing, a frame of reference your innocent reviewer doesn’t share. Shorn of that, we’re left with a generic hard-boiled detective story that’s slow-paced, confusing, more Huge Yawn than Big Sleep. Our protagonist, Finch, a detective working for the Nazis, sorry, the Coalition forces, sorry, the gray caps, is told to investigate a bizarre murder. He does a bit of aimless running around, gets beaten up a lot; his girl betrays him (to the rebels, who are a bit nice but also nasty); he kills his partner to stop him turning into a giant mutant toadstool (the way you do); someone obligingly tells him the solution to the murder. He gets a chance to save Humanity from the evil champignons, gets beaten up some more, and so on. He also turns out to have a backstory in which he’s someone else, but not enough to make him interesting.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have been here before, loads of times  - not, admittedly, with a side-order of mushrooms, but this is supposed to be a novel, not a steak. Now, if Finch was an engaging character we could relate to, rather than the storyteller’s monodimensional punchbag, or if the plot had slightly more twists and turns than a Roman road, or if the setting had anything new to offer apart from fungus, or if the world-building wasn’t just paint-it-black-by-numbers, or if the I-feel-guiltier-than-you-about-Iraq-so-there was laid on even six inches thinner, or if if you could read more than a paragraph without the style giving you a headache then maybe, possibly, Vandermeer’s rep would justify the benefit of the doubt. As it is, Finch is a big slice of confusing sandwiched between layers of unoriginal and dull, with a hard-boiled, half-baked mushroom topping.

Those readers iron-stomached enough to be able to digest and even enjoy this slop can count themselves fortunate. Sooner or later, though, the Emperor is going to catch his death of cold if he goes out dressed like that.

Tom Holt