I am about a third of the way through Jeff Vandermeer’s newest novel Shriek: An Afterword and am enjoying it immensely. I’ve been a fan of Jeff’s works since first getting a whiff of City of Saints and Madmen way back when. Shriek is an incredibly satisfying book thus far, with a unique structure that fractures time, as so many contemporary “post-modern” narratives do, but in an altogether more intimate and rewarding way. I won’t say anymore since this isn’t a review, I haven’t even finished the book yet after all, but anyone interested in more in depth reviews can see the following: SFCrowsnest, Shaken & Stirred, or Infinity Plus. What I wanted to share with you tonight was something entirely more specific, a short section that might very well represent the greatest book rejection ever put in print. With Jeff’s kind permission I will reprint it for you below.
By way of setting the scene briefly I’ll just say Duncan Shriek, the protagonist of our story, has been summoned to his publisher’s office a month after submitting a manuscript on a rather controversial subject. When Duncan arrives at the publishing house, Frankwrithe & Lewden, he is escorted into the president’s office, where said president, one Mr. L. Gaudy, “a bearded man of indeterminate age, his gaunt flesh wrapped across his cheekbones” is waiting, sitting behind his desk, staring calmly into the depths of his fireplace. Denied the comfort of a seat Duncan stands there, in total silence, for over five minutes, waiting…
As the fire behind them began to die, Gaudy smiled and broke the silence. He spoke in a “perfectly calm voice, level and smooth. He stared at the fireplace as he spoke, and steepled his fingers, elbows on the desk. He appeared not to draw a single extra breath.”
“You need not sit and thus defile my perfectly good chair because it will take no time at all to say what needs to be said to you. Once I have said what I am going to say to you, I would like you to leave immediately and never return. You are no longer welcome here and never will be welcome again. Your manuscript has performed the useful function of warming us, a function a thousand times more beneficial than anything it might have hoped to accomplish as a series of letters strung together into words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The fire has purified it, in much the same manner as I would like at this moment—and will desire at all moments in the future—to purify you, were it not outside of the legal, if not moral, boundaries placed upon us by the law and society in general. By this time it ought to be clear to you, Mr. Shriek, that we do not intend to buy the rights to your ‘book’—and I use the word ‘book’ in its loosest possible sense—nor to its ashes, although I would sooner buy the rights to its ashes than to its unblemished pages. However, on the off chance that you still do not comprehend what I am saying to you, and allowing for the possibility that you may have entered a state of shock, I shall continue to talk until you leave this room, which happy event I hope will take place before very much longer, as the sight of you makes me ill. Mr. Shriek, as you must be aware, Frankwrithe & Lewden has a history that goes back more than five hundred years, and in that time we have published our share of controversial books. Your first book—which, by the way, you may be fascinated to know is as of this moment out of print—was the forty-first book to be banned by the various Antechambers of Ambergris over the years. We certainly have no qualms in that regard. Nor have we neglected to publish books on the most arcane and obscure topics dreamt of by the human brain. As you are no doubt aware, despite the fact that many titles no longer have even a nostalgic relevance, we keep our entire, and considerable, backlist in print—Pelagic Snail Rituals of the Lower Archipelago comes to mind, there being no such snail still extant, nor such an archipelago; still, we keep it in print—but we will make an exception for your first book, which shall be banished from all of our catalogues as well. As I would have hoped you had guessed by now, although you have not yet left this office never to return, we do not like your new book very much. In fact, to say I do not like your book would be like calling a mighty tree a seedling. I loathe your book, Mr. Shriek, and yet the word ‘loathe’ cannot convey in even a thousandth part the full depths of my hatred for this book, and by extension, you. But perhaps I should be more specific. Maybe specifics will allow you to overcome this current, potentially fatal, inertia—tied no doubt to the aforementioned shock—that stops you from leaving this office. Look—the last scrap of your manuscript has become a flake of ash floating above the fireplace. What a shame. Perhaps you would like an urn to collect the ashes of your dead newborn? Well, you can’t have one, because not only do we not have an urn, but even if we did, we would not allow you to use it for the transport of the ashes, if only from the fear that you might find some way to reconstruct the book from them—and yes, we do know it is likely you have a copy of the manuscript, but we will feel a certain warmth in our hearts if by burning this copy we can at least slow down your reckless and obstinate attempt to publish this cretinous piece of excrement. Returning to the specifics of our argument against this document: your insipid stupidity is evident from the first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph of your acknowledgments page, ‘The,’ and from there the sense of simple-minded, pitiable absence of thought pervades all of the first paragraph until, by the roaring crescendo of imbecility leading up to the last word of the first paragraph, ‘again,’ any possible authority the reader might have granted the author has been completely undermined by your inability to in any way convey even an unoriginal thought. And yet in comparison to the dull-witted pedantry of the second paragraph, the first paragraph positively shines with genius and degenerate brilliance. Perhaps at this point in our little chat, I should repeat that I don’t very much like this book.”
Gaudy then rose and shouted, “YOU HAVE BEEN MEDDLING IN THINGS YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT! DO YOU THINK YOU CAN POKE AROUND DOWN THERE TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT AND NOT SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES?! YOU ARE A COMPLETE AND UTTER MORON! IF YOU EVER COME BACK TO MORROW, I’LL HAVE YOU GUTTED AND YOUR ORGANS THROWN TO THE DOGS! DO. YOU. UNDERSTAND. ME??!”
What other rhetorical gems might have escaped Gaudy’s lips, we will never know, for Duncan chose that moment to overcome his inertia and leave Frankwrithe & Lewden’s offices—forever.
I have to imagine that anyone who has ever had a manuscript rejected, which is to say every writer alive, or anyone who ever hopes to have a manuscript rejected one day (like myself) will appreciate that monologue very much. Read it over and over again and the terse rejection slips you receive in future will seem infinitely kind and sweet by comparison, like delicious little form-letter bon-bons. Yum. “Thank you sir may I have another?”
Hope the bookish among you enjoyed as much as I did.