From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer

Reviewed by Richard Dansky

The back cover text for Jeff VanderMeer’s short fiction collection The Third Bear makes it very clear that this ain’t your daddy’s short story collection. The contents are explicitly called out as “surreal and absurdist”, and the stories live up to this billing. No good versus evil here, no heroes or villains or tidy endings pop up amongst the talking rockhopper penguins and symbiotic flying manta rays and alternate 9/11s. Even the title of the collection, drawn from the lead story, is a warning not to expect the obvious. The piece isn’t the meditation on Goldilocks that one might expect, instead being a brutal examination of the awful consequences of mob logic, fear, escalation, and vengeance. It also stands as a stark warning to the reader: Your expectations will not be catered to here, so leave them at the door.

That being said, there’s something irreducibly old-school about the package that all of these thoroughly modern (or postmodern) tales are delivered in. Specifically, the overwhelming majority of the stories in The Third Bear are exactly that: stories. They are told (or written, or dictated, or emailed) to someone, a fictional listener whose imagined presence allows the narrator to unwind the tale. And so “The Quickening” is a memoir of childhood, and “The Surgeon’s Tale” is narrated both to a character within the story and one standing outside it as well, and “The Secret Life of Shane Hammill” is a letter written to a bureaucratic superior, and so it goes. And that provides an interesting tension between form and material, with the familiar structure providing a route of accessibility into the strange and unfamiliar content.

The other common element across the stories is a steadfast refusal to explain. There’s no rational explanations for things here, no longwinded hypothesis of how exactly that penguin got its vocabulary or why magic works or who sent the doom-shadowed protagonist of “The Predecessor” into the funhouse of twisted flesh that may be his tomb. It all simply is, and the reader is expected to accept it, or not, on its own merits.

The centerpiece of the collection is “The Errata”, a collection of increasingly unhinged communications from a character named Jeff VanderMeer who happens to be a writer of speculative fiction. Only this Jeff VanderMeer is stranded at a flooded hotel on Lake Baikal with a talking penguin, two revolvers, some freshwater seals and a local shaman for company, and marching orders from the publisher of Argosy to correct the errors in his magazine’s published stories as part of plan of magical transformation. Does it work? Good question; you’ll have to read it first, and then make up your own mind.

That holds true for the collection as a whole. Those looking for straightforward tales of good and evil, right and wrong, and straightforward stand-up heroism aren’t going to find them here. Those looking for VanderMeer’s crisp, elegant slightly detached prose and stories whose unique premises and off-kilter but inescapable logic, on the other hand, will find much to admire and enjoy.

The Third Bear
Jeff VanderMeer
Tachyon Publications
$14.95 | tpb | 288 pages
ISBN: 978-1-89239198-8
July 15, 2010

Also by Jeff VanderMeer: