Tuesday, March 18, 2014

All This Useless Knowledge: Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

The work of H.P. Lovecraft is one of popular fiction’s favourite aesthetics-du-jour. We’re still apparently enamoured with zombies, dystopias, and teenagers murdering one another, and whenever we need a cut-and-paste horror setting, Lovecraft is the first well we draw from. His lurid and eloquent prose certainly invites (and deserves) imitation, but few works have managed to bottle his particular brand of dreadful, elegant, creeping horror. With Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer comes closer than anyone I’ve ever read.

A mysterious place known only as Area X has been isolated from humanity for decades. The government sends out expeditions to explore it and record their discoveries. Some expeditions came back dazed, unsure of what they’d seen. Some came back and contracted terminal cancer. Some came back and committed mass suicide. Some never came back at all. Annihilation follows the twelfth group, which is composed of four women – a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist (our narrator). The characters are named by specialization and never physically described, their expertise and attitudes being the only salient information the author provides. The setting is likewise left ambiguous: Area X, and whatever lives there, might be a product of nuclear warfare, or government experimentation, or alien invasion, or any other recognizable science fiction trope. 

Annihilation occupies a space outside of the known, concerning itself with the psychological rather than the physical – which in turn takes it closer to true Lovecraftian territory. It’s sinister right from the opening page. Vandermeer makes no attempt to disguise the malevolently disquieting tone – the expedition hasn’t been in Area X for a day before flashes of imagined violence enter the narrator’s head “as if placed in [her] mind by outside forces”. We don’t know anything about these women other than their particular areas of expertise, which prove woefully inadequate when faced with the baffling and unearthly things they find. There’s no narrative reason for the members of the expedition to be female, but then there’s no reason to make them male by default, so I can’t criticize Vandermeer for that. But the choice is clearly intentional, and it still puzzles me. There’s nothing there in terms of what might be called the “female perspective”; the utilitarian dialogue betrays no gender-specific details, and the friction that swiftly develops within the group is a product of the corruptive atmosphere of Area X, not hormone-related “drama.” Vandermeer may simply have structured the novel this way in order to further sabotage your expectations; in this he succeeds dramatically.

By illustrator Jeremy Zerfoss
Like Lovecraft, the prose is as lovely as it is disturbing. In many cases you’ll be afraid to turn the page, but you’ll be as hungry for more vibrant illustration as you are terrified. The narrator is a taciturn piece of work, but as a biologist she isn’t a stranger to the beauty of nature, which is described in passionate detail. Even breathing in the suffocating, alien air of Area X, she never loses her admiration for the interconnectedness of living things. Area X is not a place of prosperity, however, and recognizing the bleak beauty of it has a way of changing you; as she puts it, “desolation tries to colonize you.” The biologist is colonized herself in more ways than one, Vandermeer planting seeds of doubt and confusion as surely in our minds as in hers.

The length of the novel is deliberately crafted too – at under 200 pages, it’s a compact, tightly-wound experience, flashing in and out of the reader’s mind like a fever dream. Vandermeer distills a profusion of dread and madness into a very small package, making you wonder: Is the biologist crazy? Is the author crazy? Am I? It teaches you to mistrust everything you’re reading, and it’s over before you can gasp, like one of the hallucinations inflicted on the characters. I was disappointed to discover on the inside back flap that Annihilation is the first of a trilogy of books; I think the story is only effective as a contained, singular experience. Vandermeer pointedly avoids excessive explanation, so why elucidate the story further with sequels? Time will tell if a larger scope works to the novel’s benefit, but I can’t see how it would.

Annihilation is sad and beautiful and terrifying. Vandermeer yanks the foundations out from under you and leaves you adrift in an entrancing, hostile world. The terror of the unknowable, the rage of impotence, the absurdity of structure, the ecstasy of madness – these are the hallmarks of classic horror as carved in obsidian by Lovecraft himself, and they permeate the skin of Annihilation like a toxic spore. I strongly suggest you allow this book to burrow into your mind, and if it proves to be too much to handle, at least it’s over quickly – but I can’t promise you’ll find any peace afterward.

 –  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto. 

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