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Jeff VanderMeer – Annihilation (2014)

05/08/2014

The story of four women – named only by their professions: biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, and surveyor – sent into a region known only as Area X, walled off from the rest of the world and in some sense corrupted by a government experiment gone wrong (supposedly). This is the 12th expedition sent in by the Southern Reach (supposedly), the mysterious governmental agency in charge of the area (supposedly), with the other 11 all having met disastrous ends of one sort or another (supposedly).

This book has been, from what I can tell, a runaway success – publishing rights bought at auction, optioned for a movie well before its release, selling well and reviewed in a huge variety of places that usually have nothing to do with this kind of book. This leaves us with an EW reviewer saying that this is “is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read.” Annihilation is not, as books of the weird go, outlandishly weird. It’s not even the weirdest of VanderMeer’s books. Even more egregious is Lydia Millett’s claim in the Los Angeles Times that VanderMeer “after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal.”

I am usually not one to wade into the (tiresome) genre vs. mainstream debate, but it has to be said: far from being a work so good that it transcends one of those embarrassing genres, Annihilation is a masterful addition to and updating of the weird tradition, that slippery venn diagram of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

To some degree this success and intersection with the mainstream is understandable: for all its weirdness, Area X is part of our own world, not the secondary-world fantasy of VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels. Lost and Roadside Picnic/Stalker seem to be the most common reference points I’ve seen (in addition to the slightly less convincing Heart of Darkness, which I suppose is just a common signifier for “journey into a menacing landscape”), which work well enough as quick and easy pointers. Where Lost was a show ostensibly about the weird that became (or always was) a character-driven melodrama, Annihilation almost aggressively moves in the opposite direction – none of the characters are given names (a rule imposed by the Southern Reach), only the biologist/narrator is given any back story to speak of, and she spends most of the novel alone. Again like Lost, the back story we do get is presented through flashbacks interspersed with the main narrative. The biologist, we learn, has been on her own throughout most of her life, mostly voluntarily. Never having felt entirely at home within human society, she has prefered to spend her time observing liminal microcosms – a tidal pool, a swimming pool being reclaimed by nature, and now Area X, which is situated at both the intersection of the land and the sea and, in a larger sense, the known and the unknown, or the normal and the abnormal.

Liminality seems to be the thematic heart of this novel – both in its larger sense of a threshold, and its more esoteric/academic sense: the middle stage of a ritual, after the previous relationship with the world has been dissolved but before the new one has been put into place. Area X itself is clearly both a spatial threshold and also the catalyst for a variety of transformations in its visitors, both physical and mental, although Annihilation closes before the endpoint of many of these shifts becomes apparent. The focus on this sort of apocalyptic unveiling puts the book squarely within the weird tradition in a way that Lost never was: most infamously the horrifying revelation of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, but think also of L. A. Lewis’s “The Tower of Moab,” Francis Stevens’s “Unseen Unfeared,” Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” or any of a host of others where a hapless protagonist gets a glimpse into a deeper layer of reality. I might go so far as to say it is the central conceit of the whole genre, although it seems to be used less explicitly in most modern entries – except for VanderMeer’s work. Both Veniss Underground, based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the Ambergris novels revolved around the relationship between a more normalized, aboveground society and an otherworldly, shadowy underground. The insight granted to a denizen of the former is even reified into a pair of glasses in the Ambergris works, if I recall correctly. VanderMeer also dwells upon the Kafkaesque irrationality of bureaucracy both here and in The Situation – more on that after I read Authority, I’m sure.

This book owes its existence to VanderMeer’s experiences hiking in Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and his evocation of place anchors the book beautifully, tying it to two more mainstays of the genre: the weird place and the hypnotic draw of the weird. Place is a mainstay of the New Weird; think not only of Ambergris but of New Crobuzon, Viriconium, the Well-Built City, Ashamoil, and so on. VanderMeer’s shift from the built environment to the weird beauty of nature is another aspect of this book that draws more on Weird tradition of the early 20th century (as does the exclusion of modern technology from Area X). Again, “The Willows” is probably the most direct forebear here, also being inspired by a particular, and clearly beloved, area of our own natural world. This is a novel where our point-of-view character finds human society to be as inexplicable as most would find Area X. This is reinforced by the fact that the two major mysterious entities of the novel – the Southern Reach and Area X itself-are similarly mysterious and alienated from the reader, but the Southern Reach is never sketched as beautifully as is Area X. VanderMeer’s weird constructs tend toward the beautiful and ineffable rather than grotesque or horrifying, and a character’s almost-hypnotic fixation on a menacing, beautiful mystery is a specialty of his. Its purest expression so far is in his short story “The Cage,” the invisible being of which prefigures Annihilation’s Crawler, the otherworldly being at the heart of the heart of Area X, which is obsessively writing its own weird tale on the walls of a structure described either as a tower or a tunnel, depending on the character. The actual script of this weird writing has a distinctly fungal character, including revelatory spores, another mainstay of VanderMeer’s weird work.

So, following in the footsteps of all the stupid theories that proliferated on the internet while Lost was airing, I’ll float one of my own about the Southern Reach trilogy: Area X was created by X, the metatextual authorial intrusion into Ambergris, who has infected our world with spores from the graycaps.

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