Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, evoke a wide variety of canonical literature. Reviewers have pointed to Poe, Thoreau, Kafka, Lovecraft, and Eiseley.[i] As an academic once focused on the origins of “the Novel” I associated Annihilation with Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. This comparison would not surprise those familiar with Defoe’s work. Both writers have a mesmerizing prose style that traps the reader in an expanding domain of uncertainty and anxiety, and both works confound epistemological categories and flatten hierarchies.
A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), though generally considered a work of fiction, reads like a straightforward personal account of living in London during the plague of 1665. Defoe’s language is somewhat ornate, in the typical manner of Eighteenth-Century literature, and in its rich details of London’s topography and culture, but this enhances rather than detracts from the “reality effect.” The meandering narrative and elaborate syntax mirror the labyrinthine forms of London as a built environment, lead us through a maze of uncertainty and indecision, and help to articulate the emotional complexity of the scene.
In its depth of description, elongated periods, and flat affect Defoe’s writing creates a profound sense of dread and powerlessness. Indeed the steady rhythm of the Journal seems to induce a kind of trance or sleep paralysis. The reader is trapped in the web of the text, silently witnessing the horror and despair, and sharing the narrator’s conflicted impulses to remain within and flea the awful scene. Defoe’s “everyman” narrator deliberates at length about the best course of action, but the reader remains helpless. We become frozen spectators, watching the steady progress of an indifferent, “supernatural” disaster.
The Journal’s London is not only a maze of streets but also an alien cultural landscape marked by extraordinary civic and medical procedures, and myriad rituals of defense against the invisible threat. At the same time, the City is revealed as an organic, biological whole. The plague too is a creature of sorts, expanding and contracting, desiring, consuming, unpredictable—apart from and a part of the City. Hierarchies of the divine, the human, and the nonhuman are flattened. The formless plague has dominion, humans are subject to its inscrutable will, and God is degraded to desperate measures and last resorts.
Returning to Annihilation (2014), VanderMeer’s writing is also realistic and copious. The first novel and the trilogy are clearly science fiction, but “read” like accounts of actual events. VanderMeer employs figures liberally, but generally in the service of detailed description: language brings natural and unnatural objects to life. Once the reality effect is established, however, these living, breathing objects become figurative language of another order. Annihilation’s complex “democracy of objects” evokes Gnosticism, the very best Twentieth-Century fantasy and science fiction, and the New Materialisms.[ii] Within the context of VanderMeer’s virtuoso “objective” mapping of Area X, Southern Reach humans are, perhaps, predictably inscrutable, and the alien energies somehow familiar. (Read, Robbe-Grillet as an idée-fixe for this particular reader). Nevertheless, the trilogy contributes to a vatic survey of an epistemologically flat new “world,” or “worlds,” expanding the democratic topoi and perspectives of many canonical novels.
VanderMeer’s prose style has the same trance-inducing quality of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, in its steady, protracted periods, and arresting syntax and diction. Many reviewers have commented that the novels engender a kind of compulsive engagement. One enters Area X and never really escapes. Like the former expedition members, the reader remains haunted by an alien agency with unfathomable potential. The novels colonize the psyche like a hypnotic suggestion. This may be true of all notable literature and art, to an extent, but in the Southern Reach trilogy hypnosis is an explicit leitmotif. The novels repeat hypnotic suggestions employed on characters in the narrative. In thrall to Southern Reach, we too are induced, bitten, compelled. “Paralysis is not a cogent analysis.” Who of us stunned by the sublime of global ecological crisis can forget such a statement? Is this counter-hypnosis? Does the VanderMeer cast or break a spell?
Though one might feel overwhelmed, even trapped, while reading the novels, the final chapters of Acceptance goad us to transgress boundaries of truth and fiction, real and unreal, original and simulacra, natural and unnatural. Area X is largely indifferent to human beings, their ego investments, their technologies, and their institutions (or institutions, technologies, ego investments and their human beings). Indeed the structures and methods of the ineffective government agency, the Southern Reach, and its similarly ineffective parent, Central, are primarily a subject of ridicule. The illusion of human sovereignty is shattered. Something “other” is now ascendant.
Area X is surreal in the forgotten sense of “more than” real. It’s also more than human. VanderMeer plays with worlds to see what happens when they collide, and he may even offer us an unstated ontology. When two or more worlds are unceremoniously introduced they become one, alienated to itself, disoriented, but struggling for reconciliation. Is this the karma of the colonist and space invader, or just another passing phase? When we embraced the indifferent universe did we imagine it could assert itself against our hubris?
If Southern Reach is ultimately a morality tale it is an unusual one. VanderMeer’s world is a trickster figure. The detailed mapping of Area X enhances the literary and philosophical conceit that objects within the landscape are pregnant symbols, but the ciphers remain unintelligible. This more than ecology as more than text effect defines a territory of questions, or provocations, rather than answers. Are we utterly dependent? Are we both dependent and responsible? Are we already exiled? We see the writing on the wall. We understand the words but not the meaning. We may never understand, but we may come to realize that we are functionally illiterate.
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