WARNING: Major spoilers ahead. Do not read unless you are certain you want things ruined for you.
Finishing Jeff VanderMeer’s Acceptance (Southern Reach #3) had no momentous cause, no sick boyfriends, and no troublesome siblings trying to claim rights to reading it first. I just…finished it. The ending left me at a loss. Not because I was frustrated by the lack of answers or explanations, but mainly because I felt so underwhelmed. I didn’t have high hopes because it’s hard to build things up and then come up with something just as awesome to fit that build up, but beyond that, there remained a good portion of characters and concepts that simply weren’t explored properly. That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. In fact, I give the book a high rating based on my displeasure when I closed it.
Acceptance splits perspectives: the Southern Reach’s past director/Expedition 12’s psychologist, Ghost Bird and Control, and the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans. No complaints here. I didn’t really think VanderMeer could pull the book off without switching perspectives. Out of these, Saul Evans truly shines.
Saul Evans, a homosexual preacher turned lighthouse keeper embroiled in a relatively new relationship with a fisherman named Charlie, deals with the Science & Séance Brigade from desecrating his lighthouse’s beacon. His past subtly arises, never in full-fledged remembrance scenes, but in dropped hints. Something about an ugly-on-the-inside father and how he formed a cultish crazy church that he abandoned. He’s trying to find himself, pull himself together, and figure out how to claim the good in life from the solitary. Strangely enough, I believe the reader receives more valuable and indirect information about what Area X is through Saul and his interactions with the young Gloria, aka Cynthia aka 12th psychologist aka past Southern Reach Director. In one specific scene, the two of them are studying a tidal pool, in particular a half-buried sand fish.
A little embarrassed, he [Saul] said, ‘That fish down there sure is frightened of you.”
“Huh? It just doesn’t know me. If it knew me, then it would shake my hand.”
“I don’t think there’s anything you could say to convince it of that. And there are all kinds of ways you could hurt it without meaning to.” Watching those unblinking blue eyes and the gold streaks—the dark vertical pupil—that seemed like a fundamental truth.”
The reader learns (but doesn’t know because answers are increasingly absent) that Area X, created by a race that was killed off by a natural disaster, is a kind of biological organic machine designed to terraform destroyed ecosystems and revert them back to their natural state. After the natural disaster, Area X floated in space and ended up on Earth. Once activated on Earth, Area X reverted to doing its programmed job, very reminiscent of the expeditions who became defined by their jobs. It reminded me of floating cysts or parasite eggs that remain dormant until the ideal conditions occur for reproduction and life to occur (oh witty biologist!). Pre-programmed and defined by that job, Area X attempts to reach some sort of identity while coming to terms with its unexpected evolution in a brand new world.
Area X sought to communicate with the Earthlings, yet Area X does not understand how. Thus, the human race is the fish in the tidal pool with Area X starting down at us, observing us, trying to figure out a way to shake hands in hello. In it’s naiveté and innocence, it inflicts harm. It does this in multiple ways. As a machine, it understands it must revert the unnatural world (cities, man-made establishments, cars) back to the natural starting point of the world (animals, ground, water, essentially ecosystems). When first contact is made with humans, Area X decides to revert the human back to an animalistic state, hoping it will become easier to communicate with transformed creatures than the original human form. This backfires, leaving half-human half-beast monsters from the psychologist-boar to the biologist-leviathan. Area X unsuccessfully attempts to revert mankind’s evolution to beings of a ‘lesser’ state.
Area X then succeeds in creating clones of the humans, doubles that it can communicate through or that can somehow interpret Area X itself. Ghost Bird is the one successful experiment in this case. She is able to communicate effectively with the humans and then she understands Area X. She is like an embassy between the two, creating a sort of dialogue with Area X’s feelings and visions, which then could be translated into words and data for the human race.
Let’s be clear that this is my own interpretation. By no means is this the ‘right’ and ‘only’ way. At one point, we are told that inside Area X is actually a different plane of existence or a new planet, but it isn’t Earth. So you enter into a new universe through a membrane and that universe is a black-holesque pocket on Earth. Even the characters at the end are left wondering, How the hell do we get back home then?
While Area X succeeds with communication at the end, the first attempt backfires. The scene where Saul first encounters Area X trying to communicate is frightening. Personally, I think it’s the creepiest scene in the book. It reminded me of the Doctor Who episode “Midnight” where an alien, in an attempt to assimilate itself with mankind, verbally mimics a group of terrified tourists to understand our language and culture, thus being able to integrate seamlessly into society. Area X tries to mimic mankind through mankind, using music and voices, but instead only creates self-destruction and soul-shivering chaos. Bravo, VanderMeer.
While this portion of the book is done beautifully, there are still three other perspectives to sort through. Unfortunately, here is where things get murky. In a generalized sense, characters remained evasive simply to maintain an air of mystery without any other reason.
Allow me to explain. Take Lowry, our only member from the first expedition who escaped. He’s off his rocker, somehow controls parts of Central and ultimately controls Southern Reach. He’s manipulative and yucky, yet I desperately wanted to know his story. To hear what Area X was like from his lips. What the fucking cell phone meant for him. What it would do if opened and pressed to his ear. Alas, my dreams were squandered as he engaged in a conversation with Gloria. She asked the questions I wanted answers to. He pussy-foots around the answers, giving nothing in return beyond fearful looks and then stalking away. In the end, Gloria announces that she doesn’t believe a thing Lowry says. How can I then believe? What was the point of that whole conversation if nothing is revealed or brought to light? What was Lowry’s ultimate goal? Simply to solve the mystery of Area X? No. Somehow, Area X is trying to communicate with him through the cellphone. Why? I don’t know.
Then there is the issue of the Science & Séance Brigade. They were commissioned by Central to find Area X before it was Area X? They were told to activate it? This whole mess of the S&SB was trite. Grace’s arrival? She felt random to serve as an unofficial guide through Area X to explain the Forgotten Island. Control felt like a shell of his former self, and while watching him descend into madness and finally be taken by Area X was good, I felt he should’ve been more.
VanderMeer had clear philosophical and psychological topics he wanted to tackle, but in pursuit of exploring those higher meanings, lost sight of the basic foundations. I liked the concept of living in the moment, how having words can be banal to explain the now, how our purpose should only be the purpose of simply being. But all of this feels trivial without the exploration of the true down-to-earth emotions driving the character’s actions. VanderMeer’s writing style, in this book, was recognizable to me because I write first drafts like this. Where sentences are as long as paragraphs and there isn’t enough metaphors to describe what I mean, so I have to lay them all down in hopes to convey each miniscule facet of that emotion. Literally, I finished editing my newly finished book and deleted over 3,000 words of ‘and,’ ‘or,’ and ‘as if.’ VanderMeer should take note of this and use it accordingly. The writing should have been more concise, precise, to really get across what he meant.
I closed the book with displeasure. With so many questions and underwhelming revelations, I was disappointed in the finale. Perhaps I am being too harsh. When I saw the last Matrix movie, I utterly despised it, but then upon re-watching it years later came to appreciate it more. That might happen with this novel. The things described above are the tip of the iceberg in my unhappiness with the book, but then and again, I know I’ll have some great conversations with others about it. That, in a way, makes it a good book.
Now I’m on to reading Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon. I read the first Harry Dresden eons ago, but my boyfriend has taken up listening to audio books and wants to book club. I’m game.