Found in Translation: Wyte’s Story in Finch

UPDATE: I forgot, blurbs are beginning to come in… “Jeff VanderMeer’s stunning Finch opens with a claustrophobic interrogation and with a reluctant detective forced to solve a double-murder. Finch quickly expands beyond genres and beyond the edges of Ambergris–its complex history, its many apocalypses–while remaining a deeply affecting and personal story. Told in a pitch-perfect voice and steeped in the unrelenting menace authentic to the best works of noir, Finch is a wonderful, sad, brutal, and beautiful book. A tour de force.”–Paul Tremblay, author of The Little Sleep

Long before I began to work seriously on Finch, my latest novel, I had fragments of something called, er, Fragments From a Drowned City, which was about a detective who comes to Ambergris seeking a girl apparently abducted and brought to the city. (I worked on it from 1999 to 2001.) It never really came together because I couldn’t at that time imagine the city of Ambergris with the subterranean gray caps in control. I also didn’t really know what happened to the detective. However, in reviewing all of my notes about Ambergris when beginning work on Finch, I realized that hidden in Fragments were many scenes and elements that belonged in the novel–just not in the same style or from the same perspective. In Finch, for example, I knew Finch’s partner, Wyte, had gone through the same experience ascribed to my nameless detective in Fragments. But that same experience needed to be rendered in a totally different way. So, here’s the more-or-less finished anecdote in Finch, followed after the cut by a snippet from what appeared as “Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose” in my collection Secret Life. I make no claims for which is better, just which is better for Finch. In many ways, it is a complete transformation–an example of the intial spark of imagination leading nowhere, and then another spark coming along to reignite the original material and re-purpose it in a totally different way. The original, including other scenes that didn’t fit in Finch, now reads like Ambergris in an alternate universe. – Jeff

From Finch…

Wyte. The story.

He’d gone to investigate a death about a year ago. By himself. No one else in the station. The call sounded simple. A man found dead beneath a tree, beginning to smell. Could someone take a look? Most days, not worth bothering with. But it was a slow morning, and Wyte took the job seriously. The woman seemed upset, like it was personal.

The body was down near the bay. Beside a cracked stone sign that used to welcome visitors to Ambergris. Holy city, majestic, banish your fears. No one was around. Not the woman who had called it in. No one.

The man lay on his back. Connected to the “tree,” which was a huge mushroom. Connected by tendrils. The smell, vile. The man’s eyes open and flickering.

Wyte should have left. Wyte should have known better. But maybe Wyte was bored. Or wanted a change. Or just didn’t care. He hadn’t seen his kids since they’d been sent out of the city. He’d been fighting with his wife a lot.

He leaned over the body. Maybe he thought he saw something floating in those eyes. Something moving. Maybe movement meant life to him.

“Who knows? Just know that it’s a dumb move.”

A dumb move. That’s how the detectives said it during the retell. At their little refuge, not far from the station. Blakely had discovered the place. In front of what used to be the old Bureaucratic Quarter. It looks like a guard post. Nondescript. Gray stone. Surrounded by a thicket of half-walls, rubble hills, and stunted trees. With a moat that’s really just a pond that collects rainwater. From the inside, it’s clear the structure is the top of a bell tower pulled down and submerged when the gray caps Rose.

Always half out of their minds with whisky or homemade wine, or whatever. When they told the story. A dumb move. Like they were experts.

“Point is,” Albin would say, because Albin usually told the story, “he leaned over and the man’s head exploded into spores. And those spores got into Wyte’s head.”

White spores for Wyte. Through the nose. Through any exposed cuts. Through the ears. Through the eyes.

Although he fought it. Twisted furiously. Jumped up and down. Cursed like the end of the world. So at least he didn’t just stand there and let it happen.

“But by that time, it was too late. A few minutes later and he’s just somebody’s puppet.”

Wyte became someone else. The “dead” man. Someone who didn’t understand what had happened to him. Wyte ran down the street. Taken over. Screaming.

“Screaming a name over and over. ‘Otto! I’m Otto!’ because that was the dead man’s name. Wyte thought he was Otto.”

Or most of him did. Wyte, deep inside, still knew who he was, and that was worse.

Sometimes, out of a casual cruelty, a kind of boredom, one of the other detectives, usually Blakely, would call Wyte “Otto.” Until Finch makes him stop.

“Well, they found him a day later. Once they figured out who the dead body was. Cowering in a closet. Saying ‘Otto’ over and over again.”

In the dead man’s apartment.

“A caution to us all.”

Then they would clink glasses and bottles, congratulating themselves on being alive.

Truth was, they told the story less to humiliate Wyte than to keep reminding themselves not to take any chances. Ambergris Rules. No dumb moves.

Wyte got Otto out of his head. Eventually. Most of Otto. But not the fungus. That became worse. The gray caps couldn’t or wouldn’t help. Maybe they saw it as some kind of perverse improvement.

No one had ever found out who had lured Wyte there. Or why.

Finch knew they never would.

***

From Fragments…

Near dawn, the detective pulled himself sodden and dripping from the River Moth. Dry land felt hard and unyielding to him. His muscles ached. The water had made him wrinkled and old. The stench of mud and silt clung to him. All around him, light strained to break through the darkness, found fault lines, and pierced the black with threads of gray and orange. To the west, the sky shone an unsettling shade of blue.

The detective lay against the smooth stones of the jetty and realized he had never been so tired in all his life. He would have fallen asleep right there, but it did not feel safe. With a lurch and a groan, the detective stood, stretched his legs, took off his trench coat, and tried to wring the water from it. After awhile, he gave up. Suddenly aware that the gray caps could already be coming for him, alerted by microscopic fungal cameras, he spun around, stared inland.

No one walked the narrow streets ahead of him. No sound broke through the crazy and up-ended buildings. A list coated the spaces between dwellings. Everything was fuzzy, indistinct. A chill seeped through the detective’s wet clothing and into his skin. In the half-light, Ambergris did not appear to be a city but instead a blank slate waiting for his imagination to transform it, to recreate it.

….

Comments

  1. says

    “Corpses that tried to dance in their stumbling decay.” That line just sticks in my head. I’m so excited to read Finch. Thanks for sharing this Jeff.

  2. Transfiguring Roar says

    That’s the old version, Michael. Won’t be in Finch.

    When I first read that piece in Secret Life, I was totally freaked out. Absolutely loved it.

    It will be interesting to read Finch. I imagine it will be yet another unique experience thanks to you, Jeff.