On Dradin, in Love; or, VanderMeer ephemera

Part of the reason I wanted to write about Jeff VanderMeer is Dradin, in Love, the 1996 novella that became the first section of “The Book of Ambergris” in City of Saints and Madmen. It is a very strange story insofar as it is set in a secondary world but includes few of the trappings of fantasy. I am currently trying to wrap up my chapter on the Ambergris novels and was committed to shoe-horning my thoughts on Dradin in there somewhere. Overall, the chapter discusses how the Ambergris books take up both postmodernist poetics and the secondary world-building of fantasy. These two things do not exist with one another easily, as the skepticism endemic to postmodernist fiction tends to destroy the naive worlds found in fantasy. However, I argue that Ambergris is a world, a materiality, entirely made up of its textuality. Whereas in fictions such as House of Leaves, textuality becomes an abyss without a bottom into which characters and events might fall, in City of Saints and Madmen this textuality is the bottom, the condition. You will have to read the book to get more about that.

That all said, I am so focused in the chapter on Duncan Shriek that maintaining the discussion of Dradin became untenable. As such, I have cut it and provide it here, for your consideration and amusement. Enjoy. Or not. (BTW, the last line of this refers to the title of this subsection of the chapter, “This is Ambergris,” which is a line from “The Strange Case of X,” the fourth section of City of Saints and Madmen.)

The processes by which this self-conditioning takes place manifest and develop throughout the novel, and no amount of discussion would be able to identify and describe every instance of them. In the interest of both clarity and brevity, I will turn to a single of example of the textual-material in City of Saints and Madmen, one found in perhaps the most unlikely place: Dradin, in Love, the novella with which “The Book of Ambergris” commences, a text which appears well before the novel’s meta-fictional and textual experiments become fully clear in “The Strange Case of X” and the Appendix. Assuming she reads the Ambergris novels in the order in which they were written and published, and assuming that she reads the first of these novels starting with its first page and proceeding to its last, Dradin, in Love will be the first Ambergris narrative the reader encounters (the only possible exception to this rule would be the untitled vignette on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition, an edition now out of print). The novella tells the story of Dradin, recently returned to Ambergris from missionary work in far off jungles, missionary work which, the text suggests, ended when Dradin and his native lover were attacked by those he had been sent to save. In this attack, his lover, Nepenthe, died. In Ambergris, shortly before the city’s Festival of the Freshwater Squid, he sees a woman’s form in a window and falls instantly in love. Using a dwarf, Dvorak, as a go-between, Dradin woos the woman and convinces her to meet him at an expensive restaurant on the evening of the festival. After she stands him up, Dvorak tells Dradin that he (Dvorak) has murdered her. Additionally, he has sold Dradin to the mushroom dwellers as another victim of the festival’s mindless, surrealistic violence. Dradin escapes with his life only to discover that the woman he had loved from afar was never anything but a mannequin. The novella is narrated in the third person and its placement at the front of City of Saints and Madmen, before any of the novel’s textual and formal experiments become fully apparent, allows it to present itself in manner characteristic of generic fantasy, even if its tone could not be further from that of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia and even if its lack of explanation for what Dradin encounters in Ambergris stands opposed to the constant explanations the readers of fantasy get from, for example, Gandalf or Aslan. In other words, Dradin, in Love seems to simply tell a story set in a secondary world without “blinking,” without calling into question the world itself or the capacity of the text in which it appears to represent it. However, as discussed above, “The Strange Case of X” reveals the entirety of “The Book of Ambergris,” including Dradin, in Love, to be the creation of the writer named X who believes he is from a place called “Chicago” and is assumed by his captors in Ambergris to be insane. Elsewhere in City of Saints and Madmen, and also in Shriek: An Afterword, the ontological status of Dradin, in Love (and the verisimilitude of its narrative) is called into question. The novella thus becomes a vehicle for world-building in the manner of generic fantasy as well as an object whose textuality compromises the materiality of the world it might seek to represent if it sought to represent a world and measure itself according to the world it assumes as its ground

To be clear: Dradin, in Love’s apparent meta-fictionality does not cause Ambergris to fall into a bottomless abyss of textuality. Rather, Dradin, in Love participates in a process by which a fantastic, Ambergrisian materiality comes into being. At the conclusion of the story, Dradin escapes the seemingly random violence of the Festival of the Freshwater Squid and finds the remains of the woman he has to this point loved at a distance, a woman Dvorak claims to have killed: “Dradin pulled aside the white sheet—and screamed, for there lay a torso, the legs severed and in pieces beneath, but placed cleverly for the illusion of life, the head balanced atop the torso, dripping neither blood nor precious humors, but as dry and slick and perfect as if it had never known a body. Which it had not. From head to toe, Dradin’s beloved was a mannequin, an artifice, a deception” (Saints 94 – 95). We here find a character confronted by the sorts of questions McHale identifies as characteristic of posmodernist fiction, questions about the constructedness of worlds, the false veneer of reality, the ontological uncertainty of existence, and the nature of the artifacts that purport to represent the world and participate in its materiality. Not only does Dradin discover the artificiality of his object of desire, the reader comes to understand that the desire itself may be false, the product not only of an ersatz desideratum but also of hallucinations produced by Dradin’s fevered state. In fact, this fever may account for the surreality of the festival, whose violence is barely acknowledged by the novella’s characters or even by the text itself, and thus provide yet another example of the sort of mediation that renders any encounter between the subject and the object finally indeterminate.

However, two passages in the novella’s final pages demonstrate Ambergris’s fantastic materiality and the manner in which the Ambergris self-materializes by way of textualization. In other words, these passages allow us to grasp the novel’s refusal to deploy its textuality as either a measure or refutation of something “out there,” and, at the same time, its insistence on the congruence of its textuality and its materiality. The first describes Dradin’s recovered memories of how his experience as a missionary ended, how he in fact killed his lover in the jungle:

As he touched her [the mannequin], as he saw all of her severed parts and how they fit together, something small and essential broke inside him; broke so he couldn’t ever fix it. Now he saw Nepenthe in his mind’s eye in all of her darkness and grace. Now he could see her as a person, not an idea. Now he could see her nakedness, remember the way she had felt under him—smooth and moist and warm—never moving as he made love to her. As he took her though she did not want to be taken. If he had lost his faith it was then, as he lost himself in the arms of a woman indifferent to him, indifferent to the world. He saw again the flash of small hand, severed and gray, and saw again his own hand, holding the blade. Her severed hand. His hand holding the blade. Coming to in the burning missionary station, severed of his memory, severed from his faith, severed from his senses by the fever. Her severed hand in his and in the other the machete. (Saints 95 – 96)

The second passage describes Dradin’s acceptance of both his love for a mannequin and, more importantly, the brute fact that she is, in fact, a mannequin:

It did not matter that she was in pieces, that she was not real, for he could see now that she was his salvation. Had he not been in love with what he saw in the third story window, and had what he had seen through that window changed in its essential nature? Wasn’t she better suited to him than if she had been real, with all of the avarices and hungers and needs and awkwardnesses that create disappointment? He had invented an entire history for this woman and now his expectations of her would never change and she would never age, never criticize him, never tell him he was to fat or too sloppy or too neat, and he would never have to raise his voice to her. (97)

Dradin recognizes what really happened at the end of his mission as well as the possibilities now opened before him only after he relinquishes a demand he has placed upon reality: that it conform to his expectations for it. (In both cases, I must note, he reveals himself to be a violent and vile misogynist. As such, we should not understand fantastic materialism, or the sorts of subjectivities positively involved with it, as purely “good” or distinctly unproblematic.) These two passages perform a pair of reciprocal and fundamental assumptions at work in the overall Ambergris trilogy. First, one should never fantasize about the material; that is, one should never textualize a world. Second, one should, rather, materialize the fantastic; that is, one should world the textual. Just as Mary Sabon, prior to her final encounter with Janice Shriek and Duncan’s nigh-magical glasses, had insisted that the materiality of Ambergris conform to her claims about it, Dradin violently imposed his vision upon the world around him, demanded that its materiality accord with the constructions he could produce about it. Whereas Sabon’s claims produce a rampant form of speciesism in Ambergris, one that undermined the already limited rights of the gray caps, Dradin’s desire for the world to be this way rather than that way expresses itself in the form of rape and murder. At the conclusion of the novella, Dradin flees with his artificial and yet real lover: “Mumbling and whispering endearments to his beloved, running strong under the mad, mad light of the moon—headed forever and always for the docks and the muscular waters of the River Moth, which would take him and his lover as far as he might wish, though perhaps not far enough” (99). Dradin disappears from Ambergris with these words, but for a few references later in City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. he remains trapped in the spaces between the words, in the textuality the novel revels in, but a textuality that carries the force of the material, one that both bends to his desires in a manner impossible for the reader and, at the same time, responds with a force that resists him nonetheless. Although Dradin, in Love largely eschews the experiments with authorship, with typography and design, with meta-fiction that characterize the rest of City and Madmen, it inaugurates the processes by which these devices of postmodernist poetics materialize as a world and escape an abyss of horror. It demonstrates that this is Ambergris.

 

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