Thursday, January 8, 2015

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: A Review

I prize the ability of fiction to create worlds. When a few dozen words can conjure forth an entire countryside, I’m hooked.  Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer is just such a book. I really can’t throw enough praise at this book. While I placed it second last week in my best-of list, I think that is really a question of degrees. Annihilation burrows into one of my favorite sub-genres of literature, weird fiction, and consumes it from the inside out. This novel incorporates more than a century’s worth of great works from authors such as Machen, Burrows, Dick, and Lovecraft but never slumps into recitation. Annihilation is a clear and original statement, a manifesto of the terrible power of the unknown. Better still, Annihilation is merely the first in a series called the Southern Reach Trilogy. For a book that is deliberately and mischievously obtuse, the fact each book was released within months of each other is an act of unanticipated altruism.

The set-up of the novel establishes, in miniature, the themes for the rest of the book. Four women, known only by their professions - psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist, and biologist - enter a mysterious area on the coast of North America called Area X. The biologist tells us a quasi-governmental agency called the Southern Reach sent them there to investigate the flora, fauna, and terrain of this isolated, possibly contaminated zone. There used to be five in their team, but the fifth, the linguist, was removed at the last possible moment for unspecified reasons. Lots of things are left unspecified in Annihilation. The method by which the expedition members entered Area X. The method they will use to return to the outside world. The length of their stay in the zone and what they can expect to find within it. Each team member carries a small black badge on their belts, which they are told will glow red in the presence of some unspecified threat. If the badge glows red, they have been encouraged to flee. They have been told they are the twelfth expedition to Area X and that some of the other expeditions have ended badly. They know they have secrets. They know they are in terrible danger.

Annihilation is a very small novel containing the almost limitless vista of terra incognito. What the reader senses is that the story told in THIS novel is only one of countless POSSIBLE Stories within Area X, that each of the previous expeditions had very different experiences. There is the old line about horror stories that the monster the reader pictures in his or her mind is always more terrifying than the one described on page. In a similar way, the narrative here suggests a far more terrible and amazing world hovering just outside of the narrator’s line-of-sight.

The book is about not just a mystery but the attraction of a mystery. The unknown is a physical force in this novel, driving the characters forward and compelling them towards ever more harrowing revelations. Lovecraft, an obvious influence for VanderMeer, once described ignorance as a necessary blessing, a shield from the insanity a too perfect understanding of the universe would cause. VanderMeer seems to suggest insanity might not be a bad option.

The imagery of Annihilation, the sparse, clear prose VanderMeer uses, really sold this novel for me. Characterization is done one deliberate step at a time, the motivations of the narrator, the facts she withholds, coming slowly into focus. This tiny little book brings an entire world into being, a weird one filled with troubling details and frustrating redactions, much like our own. I could see this world, almost remember it, like I had been there once. VanderMeer’s spare, matter-of-fact prose doesn’t require hallucinations or extreme events, but builds up a steady, almost palpable layer of dread. Discovery in Annihilation unearths more reasons for terror.

I’m not sure if this counts as a SPOILER or not, but my biggest issue with this novel is that I’m unclear just what could come next. I haven’t even scanned the summaries of the other two volumes but I have to imagine they are going to approach Area X from other directions, other characters. The ending of Annihilation is not a completely shut door, but the margin for sequels is slim. Which brings us to the real question of any story taking on themes of mystery and enigma post-LOST. What starts out as intriguing and dangerous, overtime becomes familiar and annoying. A great deal of the weirdness of LOST was described during the course of the series. The problem was the answers were so slow in coming that even the writers seemed to lose interest in them. I’m hoping that the concision of the first book is carried forward in the second and third. Loose threads I can deal with, boredom I can’t.
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