Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy landed in my hot little hands after my father had devoured the first two and waited an agonizing month for the third. He passed the series on to me at Thanksgiving and amid the mashed potatoes, he found it hard to keep his excitement at bay and not reveal spoilers. My conversation with him went thusly:
“It’s a great book, very Lovecraftian, and you’re not allowed to bring any technology into Area X because—“
“I won’t say anything except that the hypnosis is very important and critical to the—“
“And nothing is explained in the first book until you get to—“
He wanted to talk about this book so very badly it almost hurt to keep shutting him down. Even with the No Spoiler Rule, I ended up getting a very solid sense of the novel before I opened the cover. It didn’t help that my younger brother ended up stealing the first book immediately. Our conversation went thusly:
“I can see why Dad said hypnosis is very important because—“
“The lighthouse keeper’s name is Saul.”
Needless to say, when I finally got to read Annihilation, I had a clear understanding that I wouldn’t understand a thing about the novel and squashed any hope for answers because I wouldn’t get any. I think that fundamentally affected my perception of the book because I went into it knowing I wouldn’t know anything.
I hate writing mini synopsis about the book. As you can probably tell, I don’t really give you a plot summary in these posts and just delve into what I liked and didn’t like. Essentially, Annihilation is about the mysterious Area X where expeditions explore to try and understand what Area X is. They aren’t allowed technology and what they do bring in is cobbled together with parts from technology at least thirty years old. They are all nameless, being called by their job such as the Psychologist, the Surveyor, the Anthropologist, and the Biologist. From the start, things begin to get weird when they find an uncharted ‘tunnel’ in the ground with Old Testament writing on the walls scribed from an ecosystem of algae, lichen, moss, and fruiting bodies. Chaos ensues, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and if you want to know more, go to Goodreads and read the synopsis.
Annihilation had the eerie sense of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, especially when the biologist first saw the Tower and sensed going into it was like entering the mouth of a living creature (I thought of Star Wars here) and that it’s bigger on the inside (Oh Doctor Who, how you’ve ruined me). There’s something moving in the dark that both repels and compels. I absolutely loved House of Leaves, so having the chance to relive a semblance of that ambiance made me take to the book for nostalgia’s sake more than anything else. Annihilation was dreamlike, thrilling, creepy, and written from a detached narrator’s perspective that almost made me feel detached from the protagonist and started viewing her like she was on a reality show.
As a biologist myself, the Biologist’s background resonated with my own experiences. I remember peering into tide pools as a child and being fascinated with what I found in there. So much so that I could stare at that little sliver of the world for hours, taking in the bright colors, watching the animals interact with each other, and noting how things change when it rained or the sun came out. While many might have thought her a boring protagonist, I latched on to her sentiments, realizing that there was a lot of myself in her and even in her husband.
I loved the abandonment of the setting. When the Biologist reaches the lighthouse, I could easily picture the bullet ridden overturned tables, the blood splatters rusted on the walls, and the isolated air of the place that makes you feel alone and yet not alone at the same time. I’ve sought out places like that (not with blood splatters mind you geez I’m not a psycho), but places that are run down, derelict, and forgotten.
There’s one such house outside a farm in Montana where no one has lived in at least twenty years. I remember sneaking into it with my friend (twice). The paint peeled off the walls like they were making cups and my shoes sounded so loud on the floorboards and the creepy magic of all these dead birds found only in the room where birds had been painted on the walls. It freaks me out and intrigues me at the same time. There’s other place like that. The ranch house on the way to Salt Lake City sitting tall and mansion like in the middle of nowhere with the foundation crumbling underneath it and Dead Horse Bay in New York where hundred year old trash spews on the beach. It feels so rich and sad.
Nearly fifty pages in, I went ahead and took a shotgun approach and announced that Area X was turning people into animals, similar to the Odyssey’s Circe turning Odysseus’ men into swine. I hadn’t met the dolphin yet, but I was at the boar scene and could only believe that somehow the power driving the Area was reverting the land back to its original ways by destroying mankind. Obviously, my shot in the dark had no answers, but it’s the best hypothesis I could come up with. The idea of mankind being transformed into the huge sea monsters circling the island gave me a delightful round of shivers.
I truly enjoyed the moaning creature trying to take the Biologist out (getting chased by a something unknown that howls? That’s scary) and the conversation with the psychologist after her leap from the lighthouse, but as per Vandermeer’s plots, no light shone on the bigger picture beyond the sinister truth of what Annihilation meant. Vandermeer’s style was interesting, but it painted a very shaky unpredictable image of the forces affecting the Biologist. She constantly referred to things in a roundabout way, explaining how the brightness within her was transforming her but it also had a sentient ability to pout or be traumatized. Our first view of the Crawler was, to me, disappointing in every way simply in that I couldn’t envision what exactly the creature was. It had an image of a hand and a head, an impression of changing shape, it was slow moving, but when she took a second glance at it, it looked like the lighthouse keeper on the inside. To me, I’m not sure if this is just the author scrambling through his imagination for something hideous to match the suspense, but my impression was a ball of green light with a man standing inside it with floating atoms over his head. Things weren’t described; they were explained by their impressions made or their semblance to something else, nothing solid. Everything had an air about it that didn’t match what exactly it was. I accepted the description because I sometimes think in that manner, but at times it became irritating. I wanted to simply make the Biologist look and describe exactly what she saw beyond the impressions and feelings the creature or item gave her. Even when she read her husband’s journal, she “quoted” his “account” like it was in a scientific paper. It’s not that I don’t trust her, but I don’t trust her lack of emotions to give me the information I truly need to bond with the story properly.
Or maybe that’s part of the point. I feel like this was Vandermeer’s attempt to create a first contact novel, and the first contact wasn’t with an alien species so much as an alien territory. That lends to the idea of things being described so loosely and the ability of the protagonist to take us on long winding thought processes before getting her back on track to the issue at hand. She lives so much on the outside with almost zero emotion beyond quiet despair. Even when she talks about her husband, I can’t feel her emotions. I feel like she’s only putting them down because it’s expected of her. Somehow, there’s a wall between her and life and she can’t bypass it until the things she wants to love and give love to are already gone.
It’s weird to type that, because it resonates with something I’ve been feeling lately, only in reverse. Like I’m the one with all this energy and love and trying to give it to the world, only to find that the world doesn’t really give two fucks.
Whatever the case, I have to finish the series and give them back to my father. I know things will become clear in the next two novels, because the No Spoiler Rule really doesn’t work. It really doesn’t.
Either way, a Merry-Whatever-You-Celebrate and a wonderful New Year. Bring it on 2015.