As noted in Wonderbook, I had trouble getting the voice of Nicola in my novel Veniss Underground right. The novel is set in the far future in which walled city-states use advanced technology to stave off the horrible ecological destruction that exists beyond their walls. The “underground” of the title is a hellish subterranean area run by a rogue bioneer named Quin, who makes genetically modified animals, so of them intelligent. In the scene below, Nicola, the sister of Nick, her twin and fellow orphan, is searching for him at his apartment. Nick has gone missing and she is concerned that he may have tried to make a deal with Quin to advance his mastery of his biotech arts.
Early drafts were written in first and third person (as set out below), and I eventually settled on the unusual second person because it allowed for a kind of ghostly extra something to enter the text, and also solved a plot problem in part 3 of the novel, which is from the point of view of Nicola’s former lover. In first person, Nicola came off as too brusque or abrupt no matter what I tried, and I felt I couldn’t see as much of the world around her. In third person, I felt as if the narrative was serviceable, but did not allow for the poetic or luminous qualities that I needed the text to also exert. I also didn’t feel like I knew the character—and I kept writing more dialogue than I wanted in the novel. More importantly, because of that plot problem I mention, and Nicola’s altered state later in the novel, only use of second person, for better or worse, allowed me to fully inhabit her personality. – Jeff VanderMeer
Thankfully, he always preferred to be close to a checkpoint station, so only ten minutes later I arrived at his apartment building. The holosign on the second floor rushed at me, but I wasn’t fooled: it was just a half-transparent image of a melancholy woman shilling for the Tolstoi Hostel, the sign for which was pulsing in frenetic pink beside her.
Inside, I had to bribe the landlord before he would tell me he hadn’t seen Nick in three weeks. I’d had enough of leers and desperate conversation on the way there, so the old codger telling me he’d once been a boxer went to the same place as the shill-woman. “Anyone visited him since the robbery?” I asked. “No, no one’s been here,” he replied. Could be he was referring to Nick and the hostel.
Walking across the lobby to the stairs, past two old people on a sofa staring vacant, I could feel the landlord’s eyes on me. But I didn’t think he was lecherous…just lonely, which was almost worse.
Nick never made anything easy for me—those stairs weren’t moving but like some kind of historic landmark so stationary I lurched and almost lost my balance. The second floor landing didn’t inspire confidence. It felt like the backdrop for a scene in one of those cop movies Nick liked so much. Peeling paint. No ventilation, Nick’s door scrawled over with graffiti that felt like a big fuck you to his ambitions. Even if Nick had added the words himself, for his “slang jockey” thing.
I didn’t open the door after it clicked open when I turned the key. I’d been brave so far, but now my hand on the knob trembled. What was I going to find? What was Nick going to put me through?
Inside, I found a stark white silence that contrasted with the landing. Poor lighting and a musky smell. The living room and kitchen were empty, the bathroom in the back almost too small for a shower. Typical for Nick. Huge blank spots in the living room showed where his holoart had once stood, while scuff marks on the left wall showed me that he’d sold his old-fashioned couch. No chairs, either. It wasn’t even clear anyone lived here any longer.
I hadn’t cared about Nick for a long time—not really cared—because of the sheer repetitive nature of his traumas—but those rooms made me sad. They made me pity my brother.
And, luckily, he chose an apartment close to the checkpoint station—ten minutes after disembarkation you find his apartment building. It seems to suddenly rush at you as you emerge from a long, dim alley, so that the second floor holosign, faded and crackly, leaps into focus: a half-transparent image of a woman sadly singing the praises of the accommodations while she holds a sign that reads “Tolstoi Hostel” in frenetic shades of red and pink. Words and motion and song hit you all at once, and, although you have been here before, you stop and stare, annoyed, at the colors and textures, the way, against the gray of the district, the sunlight hits the sides of buildings and illumines them in gold.
Inside, you find the landlord behind a once-opulent polished oak check-in counter. He hasn’t seen Nicholas in over three weeks he says, after you bribe him with the rent money. The fist-faced old codger rewards you with a key, a broken-toothed leer, and desperate conversation: “I was a boxer once. MaxWindberg once rode my muscles to victory at 18 to 1!” Has anyone visited him since the robbery, you ask. “No, no one’s visited,” he says, and you don’t know if he means Nick specifically or the Tolstoi Hostel in general.
You can feel the landlord’s gaze on your back—not lascivious, you feel, merely lonely—as you walk across the lobby, past an old man and woman sitting on a sofa staring toward the open door. Who are they waiting for?
The pilgrimage to Nick’s apartment is a difficult trudge up old-fashioned non-moving stairs to a second floor landing right out of one of those ancient revivalist cops-and-robbery movies Nick likes so much: paint-peeled, no ventilation, a door scrawled over with so much graffiti that none of it is readable. Nick added the graffiti himself—the accumulation of all the sayings and phrases he created while playing the slang jockey game.
You put the key in the door, turn it, but do not open it when you hear the resounding click. Suddenly your hands tremble. What lies beyond the door is also beyond your control. You can do nothing about the consequences of what lies beyond the door. You enter into a stark white silence, poorly lit and overlaid with a musky smell. The apartment has three rooms—a living room that merges with the kitchen, and a tiny bathroom toward the back, barely large enough for a shower. The living room and kitchen are empty. Huge blank spots in the living room show where his holoart once stood, while rude scuff marks against the left wall reveal where the ugly, old-fashioned blue couch—metal-springed and without programmable attributes—used to hunker, ready to convert into Nick’s bed. Gone too the few scattered chairs that used to litter the floor like lost and confused pets.
Gone, all gone. How can this be? Has the landlord stolen what the thieves left behind? A terrible sadness beats at the windows to your heart, and the world opens up and closes and opens up, and you are trapped between, of the world, not of the world.
Ten minutes after leaving the station, Nicola found his apartment building—it seemed to rush at her as she emerged from an alley, the second floor holosign leaping into focus. A half-transparent image of a woman sadly sang to Nicola the praises of the accommodations while she held a sign that read “Tolstoi Hostel” in frenetic shades of red and pink. She stopped and stared, annoyed, at the colors and textures, the way, against the gray of the district, the sunlight hits the sides of buildings and illumines them in gold. She wished Nick wouldn’t make her come to places like this.
Inside, she found the landlord behind a once-opulent polished oak check-in counter.
“When did you last see Nicholas?” she asked.
But the fist-faced old codger didn’t want to talk until she’d given him some money.
“Is that enough?” she asked, meaning she didn’t have any more.
He gave her a key, a broken-toothed leer, and a random boast: “I was a boxer once. Max Windberg once rode my muscles to victory at 18 to 1!”
“Has anyone visited him since the robbery?” Nicola asked.
“No, no one’s visited,” he says, and she didn’t know if he meant Nick specifically or the Tolstoi Hostel in general. It could have been either.
The walk across the lobby felt long to her, in part because she knew the landlord was staring at her. She couldn’t tell if it was lascivious or merely curious, and she wasn’t going to turn around to find out. The stairs were oddly difficult because they were the old-fashioned kind that didn’t move, which she hadn’t seen in ages. The second-floor landing was worse than anything in the cop movies Nick liked: paint-peeled, no ventilation, a door scrawled over with so much graffiti that none of it was readable. She wondered if Nick had added the graffiti himself—part of his slang jockey game.
The click of the key in the lock suddenly made her hands tremble. She didn’t belong here. She didn’t belong anywhere near here, resented Nick for putting here, at this door, about to go in.
But inside was better than she had imagined; it was just so empty. A stark white silence, poorly lit and overlaid with a musky smell. The apartment had three rooms—a living room that merged with the kitchen, and a tiny bathroom toward the back, barely large enough for a shower. Huge blank spots in the living room showed where his holoart had once stood, while rude scuff marks against the left wall revealed that he’d sold or tossed his ugly, old-fashioned blue couch—metal-springed and without programmable attributes. Gone too the few scattered chairs that used to litter the floor like lost and confused pets.
Gone, all gone. She’d half expected it, and yet how could it be? Had the landlord stolen it all, what the thieves had left behind? A sudden sadness overcame her—for that life, for Nick. For the fact that places like this existed, where someone had existed and left less than nothing behind.