Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Edited 2/15/16: Never write a review on cold medication! There have been several changes to this review, but the substance has not been altered.

Annihilation, FSG Originals, 209 pages, $13
Authority, FSG Originals, 352 pages, $15
Acceptance, FSG Originals, 352 pages, $15

Well, the titles of Jeff VanderMeer’s works say it all. In “Annihilation” the mysterious Area X in (probably) Florida is our own little Bermuda triangle. It sucks people and bunnies up. In “Authority,” the Southern Reach is a government organization tasked with figuring out the who, what, when, where, why of Area X. So far, they have not been very successful. “Acceptance”  perhaps refers to humanity’s reluctant or joyful acceptance of Area X, Area X’s acceptance of our invasive poking, or maybe everyone has a come-to-God moment. Maybe it just means that we have to accept that “Acceptance” is the last in the series.

Broadly summarized, the Southern Reach stories are ecological horror stories, nature on the defense/offense.

Somehow thirty years ago an invisible barrier was formed, isolating a large area of coastal land. Anything thrown at the barrier disappears. Poof! After extensive probing, a strange doorway (still invisible, of course) has been located.  “Annihilation” follows expedition group twelve through the door. (The members of prior expeditions have mostly disappeared or the luckier ones have mysteriously re-appeared on the outside, mostly void of memories of their time in Area X.) The primary focus is on “the biologist.” There are no personal names; everyone is known by her function. 

There is a “topographical anomaly” that beggars description. The biologist calls it a tower, but it appears to be a winding tunnel into the ground. (VanderMeer humorously — and there is no humor in the stories — labels chapters in the last book, “Typographical Anomalies.”) There is also a ruined lighthouse, which may contain clues to Area X. While a lot of the birds, reptiles, and mammals seem normal, there are aspects of some of the creatures that are disquieting. Then there’s the “moaning creature” and other unnatural sounds. (Maybe VanderMeer had been watching too many episodes of "Lost.")

“Authority” is winding, opaque, and philosophical. Control (that’s his nickname —there really is a reluctance in these books to use real names) is the newly appointed director of the Southern Reach. He is there to unravel the convoluted notes and reasoning of the prior director. He is also there to interview the biologist from the expedition described in “Annihilation” who disappeared from Area X and re-appeared in a vacant lot in the outside world as if by magic. She is keeping a secret but Control is unable to judge its pertinence to the puzzle of Area X. She is referred to as Ghost Bird. A lot of the book is about Control’s crummy childhood, his workaholic mother (who is also one of his bosses in the overarching governmental organization), and his suspicion that he is being manipulated by his mother and others into finding out … what? What?

“Acceptance” carries a lot of narratives forward. Before the invisible, nearly impenetrable border came down and created Area X, there was a working lighthouse and a lighthouse keeper, Saul Evans (yay! a name). There were also two silly people with the Séance and Science Brigade haunting the lighthouse, bothering Saul, and sticking strange machines around. There was a young girl named Gloria who was wild and brilliant, for whom Saul was a surrogate father. One of the stories is about this “prebiotic” time.

Control and the Ghost Bird are back with the rest of their story. Ghost Bird would dearly love to understand the tug Area X has on her. Control has nothing left to lose anymore. His reputation is in tatters, nothing is as it seems, and he no longer has authority, if he ever had any to begin with.

Finally, the director of the Southern Reach, Control’s predecessor, tells the story of her obsession. She too is bound to Area X but not for the same reason as Ghost Bird. She painstakingly gathers information and tries to find logic where there apparently is none. What is the logic of the words burned into the living wall of the tunnel/tower: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner.” Control finds the words also written in a mysterious closet in the director’s office behind a barricaded door.

For ninety-five percent of the story, VanderMeer obscures, obfuscates, and raises question after question. Will he ever explain anything? The answer is yes.

VanderMeer’s publishing company released his three books during the same calendar year, an unusual but wise move, because waiting a full year between releases would have caused frustration and mutiny. These books are actually one large book, artificially cut into three parts. 

Depending on your point of view, there is either a lot of padding or a beautiful exposition of nature untouched by man’s ignorant bootprints. There is either a fine depiction of descents into madness or a tedious look at several obsessive personalities. I claim the middle path in each instance. I enjoyed about eighty percent of the story and would have wished for an abridged version.

VanderMeer’s entertaining story may be a riddle wrapped in an enigma, but his take-away message is what a mucked up job we humans have made of our world and that the question of identity is indeed a hard one to answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment