Annihilation, the entry to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, is a masterpiece. Don’t argue with me. I read the novel back in 2014 when it was first released, and I was astounded at how beautiful and completely … other a novel could possibly be. As such a fan, of course, I was incredibly excited to learn of a film adaptation.
Actually, I was lucky enough to meet the VanderMeers (Jeff and Anne) at the Decatur Book Festival in 2014. Jeff teased that the novel had been shopped around for film rights and it was in the works.I slowly forgot about it until the trailer surfaced and my heart raced. So this opening weekend, I marched into the theater trusting Natalie Portman to be a strong Biologist/Ghost Bird, and I found my heart breaking.
But from the bad can always come good. While I was disappointed at Hollywood’s failed attempt to translate this masterpiece to the silver screen, I knew the antidote to such a poison was to read the novel again. So I did. I finished it in one delicious gulp.
Good God, what an intriguing and stunning novel. There is little to tell without telling everything, and fortunately, there is a fantastic novel to take care of that.
In the simplest terms, an expedition of four scientists are commissioned to go into Area X, a mysterious piece of land that has changed since the Event (whatever that refers to). Each specializes in a different area of expertise: psychology, biology, anthropology, military. Things aren’t as they seem; though, on the surface, everything appears to be pristine untouched land. In reality, it is anything but.
VanderMeer shows incredible prowess as he crafts a story that works so intricately upon the creepy. The tension in these pages can be so real at times that it’s mesmerizing. The novel is built in the guise of the biologist’s journal. She recreates her experience as she and her crew journey into the heart of Area X. There is this constant melange of the biologist fulfilling the role as the watcher and the watched. Tension fills the background because obviously there is some undefinable presence.
What I love so much about this novel, and I think speaks so well to VanderMeer’s true talent is the use of veiled writing. The characters are only partially defined for us. We don’t get much detail as to what they look like, or even what they’re names are. This cloaking adds to the mystery of this land. As the biologist notes, “Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X” (9). And it these withheld details that make the novel so cerebral but also direct our attention to the unknown.
Not only that, it puts us at the mercy of our self-proclaimed unreliable narrator. She tells the reader she is withholding certain information: “It may be clear by now that I am not good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details” (150). And this creates a rift of distrust, or perhaps envy. What does she know that we don’t? It is much like a mimicry of Area X itself — the answers escape us.
The biologist is much of an enigma. The psychologist and the surveyor (again they have no names, so they go by their titles) point out that the biologist has begun to change, while she argues that she is steadfast and the same as she always was. That’s actually untrue. She has indeed changed more than she lets on. She reveals in flashbacks that she is a very closed person. She is content in solitude. But as her journal (this document we are reading) shows, she has become much more open. She has revealed much more to us than she has to anyone else, though she claims, “I haven’t told it quite right” (193).
As I write this post, I have reread several passages, and I can’t help but remark at how gorgeous the prose reads. This is one of my favorites:
The ghost bird had found his ghost, on an inexplicable pile of other ghosts. But rather than looking forward to reading that account I felt as if I were stealing a private diary that had been locked by his death. A stupid feeling, I know. All he’d ever wanted was for me to open up to him, and as a result, he had always been there for the taking. Now, though, I would have to take him as I found him, and it would probably be forever, and I found the truth of that intolerable. (118)
This is no ordinary thriller in my opinion. Annihilation is an upstanding piece of fiction. I always judge a work by my level of jealousy, and I have to admit that I wish I had written this! It’s just so damn good. VanderMeer’s writing is masterful. The evidence of the creepy persists so strongly in the background of the novel, that the thrill of the journey seeps into your bones.
Circling back to the film, I often found myself wishing someone like Lars von Trier had a hand in the novel to give us something closer to Melancholia. There just wasn’t enough strangeness, mystery, and wonderment – not to mention aggressive changes to the story. So please, do me a favor, read the book first.
when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)
There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you. (46)
no amount of training could prepare you for encountering a monster. (59)
what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible? (66)
That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (108)
“but what about the /veil/ already in place?” (Psychologist, 128)
— confirmation of the veiled writing I mentioned … mentioned several other times
When you are too close to the center of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire. (130)
I felt as if I were stuck between two futures, even though I had already made the decision to live in one of them. (147)
“but we couldn’t see it through the veil, the interference.” (Biologist’s husband, 166)
— further confirmation of the veil