by Jeff Vandermeer
Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy about the strange. The premise is delightfully vague — a zone (in the United States?) has become infested with some sort of invading biology that terraforms the land around it, menaces the people living there, and brings the strange in high doses. Into this forbidden zone, which the residents of the “Southern Reach” (is that the U.S. South? seems like) call “Area X,” goes a team of four specialists: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a biologist, and a surveyor. Things go weird quickly.
A few thoughts:
- This book is mesmerizing and creepy, but it never really grabbed me. By the last third of the book I was keen to find out what was going on, but my experience of it never amped up the way I like a book to do, especially one focused so much on mystery/ magic/ or horror.
- The book’s shifting tone is one of the most interesting aspects of this book; it revels in complex category allegiances. Like many books of fantasy and weirdness, Annihilation challenges our sense of narrative cohesion and the way we understand what’s happening in the tale.
- The epistolary form works well given the narrative reveals throughout the story, but at the same time it releases one crucial safety valve, which is whether or not the narrator will make it to the end of the tale. They must. That said, I like the way suspense and fear get worked into the story through foreshadowing and flashbacks.
- There were several moments in reading the novel where I thought of LOST and its attendant weirdnesses throughout the island. But unlike LOST, Annihilation sticks to a single person’s perspective and a single person’s narrative. This gives Vandermeer a lot more freedom to include story hooks that do not get resolved, as the limited perspective of the narrator necessarily means that not every bump in the night will get investigated. (As opposed to LOST, which followed many perspectives and thus suggested that we might eventually get everything explained to us.)
- The fantastical elements of the novel are pretty out there — a strange mix of surreal and bizarre, worthy of Clive Barker or similar fantasists. I particularly like the use of a lighthouse as a key location in the story, as that particular kind of structure easily serves a variety of allegorical and storytelling purposes, being isolated, liminal, and kinda creepy. In that way, this book stands as a strong descendant of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, which often turned on groups of people encountering things beyond comprehension, and wrestling with the madness that could follow.
As I read this book, I also couldn’t help but think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a 1979 movie about a forbidden zone in Russia where a mysterious force, or set of forces, has taken over and driven out the rightful residents. The government in that film has banned any incursions into the place, but the narrator joins a black market coyote who specializes in taking trips into the zone. Both Annihilation and Stalker make use of the eerie state created by modern culture that has been taken over by nature (and by something strange). They both trade on the tendency of the human mind to imagine things hiding in the dark, watching us, and on our propensity for curiosity. Most significantly to me, both texts make strange the everyday (like a lighthouse) through some actual weirdness and a liberal dose of well-crafted mood.
Overall, Annihilation is a compelling tale of mystery and terror, a weird fantasy story in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, with a dose of Clive Barker. Take someone with you when you read it.