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There’s a tendency to think of genre fiction as somehow less than, even though we’ve always known that some of our most gifted writers happily appropriated some of the tropes and themes inherent to sci-fi or fantasy or thriller or horror or what have you.

Our foremost practitioners of genre work have shown themselves capable of embracing and elevating the precepts and preconceptions that define their genre of choice, all while also showing themselves capable of both literary and ideological excellence.

Jeff VanderMeer is one such practitioner, an author dubbed “sci-fi” because no other label fits. One of the best-known luminaries of the so-called “Weird Fiction” school, VanderMeer utilizes the tools that genre gives him to create works that are very much their own thing, even if recognizable elements appear within them.

His latest is “Hummingbird Salamander” (MCD, $27), a bleak and dystopian piece of ecologically-charged speculation that marries the seemingly casual world-building at which he excels with a twisting, conspiracy-laden puzzle box of a thriller. He’s so gifted at placing character-driven narrative at the forefront while parceling out details about the world in which the narrative takes place – this is just another example of his tremendous talents at work.

VanderMeer’s affection for the natural world – as well as his concern for its future – plays out regularly in his books; “Hummingbird Salamander” is no exception. Through his vivid imagination and visceral descriptions, he creates people, places and events that lodge themselves in the mind of the reader, sparkling with bright colors that are both beautiful and poisonous.

Published in Buzz

Something I’ve learned in a decade or so of book reviews: Even when you think you know, you don’t always know.

Take “Antkind” (Random House, $30), the debut novel from acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, for example. As someone familiar with Kaufman’s body of work – his style, his sensibility, his thematic interests – I figured I had a pretty good grasp on what I was getting into when I picked up his first work of literary fiction.

Reader, I did not.

Kaufman’s creative output is fluid, an elaborate and evocative liquid that takes the shape of whatever container it is placed into. Movies have strict delineations – there are unavoidable limitations of time and technology – and hence Kaufman’s work in that sphere is likewise limited. But on the page, there are no such limit. In that regard, “Antkind” is Kaufman unleashed, his careening creative brilliance utterly unfettered.

It’s … a lot.

This book is a sprawling, recursive metanarrative, one unbound by literary convention. It is the story of what happens when mediocrity is confronted with genius and forced to reckon with what happens when singular brilliance proves ephemeral. It is about a man in whom self-regard and self-pity do constant battle, forced to come to terms with how little he understands. It is about what it means to be tangentially touched by greatness, only to have that greatness escape your grasp.

Published in Buzz

There will always be a place for straightforward narrative fiction. There will always be stories that need to be told, tales that move from Point A to Point B and so on, following a linear path from beginning to end. Tales filled with heartbreak and humor, driven by plot and character.

But sometimes? Sometimes, you just want to get weird. And for those times, well … Jeff VanderMeer can help you out.

VanderMeer – one of our leading purveyors of the literary subgenre dubbed “weird fiction” – has a strange and exquisitely opaque new novel. “Dead Astronauts” (MCD, $27) is a prequel of sorts to his equally bizarre 2017 novel “Borne,” its title a reference to a line in that previous book. It brings us back to the ravaged future VanderMeer created for “Borne,” only slightly earlier in the timeline of that technocorporate dystopia.

It is a challenging experiment of a novel, marked by the vivid weirdness and repetitive complexity that features prominently in VanderMeer’s work. There’s a narrative fluidity to it all, marked by an odd combination of optimism about and suspicion toward technology and the way it impacts the world around us in ways both miniscule and massive.

Published in Style

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