If Viriconium was depressing, The Narrator was angrifying. Like Viriconium, the book starts off brilliantly. Everything about it is wonderfully off and new and different, like it was sent from a foreign country or a different time-line. The cover art is baroque and alien and for once it perfectly fits the story. Even the typeface and page setting are different from 99.9% of other books, but still are completely readable and pleasant. The story starts in media res. Very in media. The world seems to be at an ~1890's tech level, but the countries and ethnic groups and wars and history are all strange, and the human societies seem to be ruled over by something approximating mind-flayers, as well as the mind-flayer's own little eco-system of extra-worldly organisms, mechanisms, and spirits. The protagonist and PoV character is a "Narrator", which is a sort of translator/Shaman. So far so good. And the writing can be beautiful at times; an instance of this is an early passage describing the cave of organ donations made to a mummified saint, which manages to be A) not gross, B) actually does make you think about what the color/texture of these organs are, and C) brings out their meaty, glisteny beauty.
So where does it all go wrong? The problem is that the in media res never resolves into anything fully understandable. Things start off pleasantly strange and confusing, with all these uncertainties and puzzles to solve, and then they just get more strange and confusing from there, losing any sense of grounding or attachment or meaning. Every 10 pages, the story wanders off from the PoV of the conscript Narrator, to a dream of his, or a vision of his, to the viewpoint of his book-homunculus stalker, to the ghost-memory of someone who lived at the same location, or to some other random entity. This is compounded by the often stream-of-conscious nature of the narration. Words and purposes are left out, things are rarely described plainly, and what is described is usually only the immediate sense inputs available to the Narrator. A few examples of this from a random flip through the book:
"Brightening up for a change, icy light although the day is ending, brilliance soft on the eye, not dazzling."
This isn't really a formal sentence, but it is at least understandable, which is something.
"I run, I get down, I want to ask somebody something - man splashes to within a few feet of me raises his gun aiming and it bursts in his hands swatting him to the ground and he's clawing his face and kicking on his back."
This is from one of the many fire-fights in the book; you only get the sensory information that the narrator has, and even this is garbled by the shock of events. These aren't even particularly unclear selections, they are just the standard writing for much of the novel.
As a cherry on top, there's also meta-narrative elements where the protagonist, for instance, summons up a memory, takes an item (say a rock) out of that memory, and uses it in his current situation. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it was.
So, you take a garbled world, garbled writing, garbled PoV, garbled meta-fiction, and the end result is kind of a gibberish. It would be like taking a selection of fine sauces and wines, and mixing them all together into a giant bowl. Far too much, and a waste of something that could have been quite good if used in moderation. In this story I could generally understand what was going on, but my ability to care gradually went down over the course of the book as it became increasingly clear that nothing would really be made clear. I don't know, I had a similarly hostile reaction to Bank's _A Song of Stone_, maybe I am just offended by books that make the basic communication of information into an unnecessary ordeal? Somewhat like a program that is complex, not because it has a complex algorithm, but because all the variables are badly named and jammed together into one huge function? And what is the final message of the book? That war was is bad? Yes, I was already on board for that, thanks for letting me know.