Thoughts: Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer

I go through phases of being a Goodreads stalker, seeing what my friends are reading, what their new friends are reading even, seeing what they thought of the books they’ve read (I don’t give my own ratings but naturally am perfectly happy to peruse other people’s) and how many books we have in common in our reading pasts and futures. So I’d seen Annihilation around before it was suggested for Casual Brunching Book Club (name not final) and I was glad to have an excuse to read it. It was generally well received and though I’d read the blurb I didn’t really have any idea what would happen, which is as it should be for a book like this. Which is also my way of saying this review will be full of spoilers so look away now.

Let me start by saying Annihilation was exactly my brand of creepy. Nature observation? Check. Lovecraftian nameless terrors which defy description and logic? Check. Narrator that I wouldn’t be friends with but nevertheless recognise some of my own more unlovable traits in? Check.

It was very Lovecraftian in general, with a sort of naturalist explorer vibe that seems old-fashioned nowadays, with a tight mystery that doesn’t quite get resolved (in this, the first book of a trilogy). But with far less racism (and the cast is entirely female, if that’s something that matters to you – not being flippant). The speculation and non-resolving of the mystery were all basically tailor-made for me. I love a good mystery, but I almost love it even more when the author withholds the answers. I should clarify – I don’t enjoy authors holding secrets over my head to drum up some cheap drama, but that’s not what Vandermeer is doing. The book is startlingly short, and there’s just no time to let the wheels spin. Everything is constantly moving, even when our narrator is remembering her past or telling us about herself. We’re always going forwards and getting more, right to the end.

But the narrator doesn’t know the answers. She can’t. If at the end, she turned around and told us the secret of Area X, we would feel cheated, or at least dubious. Instead she guesses and observes, and records these observations as faithfully as she can, and we can only agree or disagree with her suppositions. Ugh now we have to talk about unreliable narrators, don’t we? Yes, yes, blah blah human psychology and limitations, and unreliable narrators are all the rage, but there’s a time and place for them and I’d argue that Annihilation is not entirely either. What do we gain if the wonders and horrors of Area X aren’t real, or aren’t as described? Nothing. That’s just… lying.

I don’t think that the narrator experiences Area X in a totally impartial way, I should say. If it didn’t mess with your mind then what would be the point? But I think she’s describing her experiences honestly enough. Vandermeer seems to deliberately set her up to be the closest we can get to an impartial observer – her need to observe abandoned places where humans aren’t welcome, untouched places. Her refusal to touch such places. Think of the swimming pool gone wild she studies as a child. And as she grows up she only grows further apart from humanity, an even quieter presence. If we can trust anyone to tell us about Area X, it’s her.

And more than that, he takes away all reason she might have to lie. We know that the journals the explorers are given and told to write in are going to be monitored and that this will affect what each person chooses to record – whether it’s pure, dry data, encoded messages or simply nothing. Also, the nature of the journal would mean that we were getting information as it happened, full of misunderstandings to be straightened out later, decoys and red herrings. But the narrator isn’t writing from one of those journals, or to the people who would ordinarily read it. She’s writing to us, from a position where she has all the information she is likely to get, with the intention of sharing it. She’s open about (some of?) her omissions and glosses, and I’m content that anything she did leave out is either private or insignificant. Maybe I’m naive, but I do think there’s such a thing as being too clever-clever, and the tightness and leanness of Annihilation is too good to be weighed down with such heavy meta games.

I loved the hints we got towards the wider world – that the teams are trying to recreate something from the past, the photo of the lighthouse keeper (and his fate), the signs of so many bloody last stands in the lighthouse, the idea that actually no one came back from Area X even when they did. The hints of cycles, waves, defences. Do I want to read the second and third in the trilogy?Yes and no. Yes I want to know what happens – what has happened – but I also want to maintain this state of half-knowing. I want to keep the potential while it’s still electric and limitless. It worries me to think that perhaps in solving the mystery, the mystery will be diminished.

Speaking of diminishing the mystery, there was a grand total of two lines in the whole book that annoyed me because Vandermeer was so patently better than that. First is the narrator’s excuse for not naming the other members of the expedition (two of them will be dead in the next few days anyway so why bother). Far from ratcheting up the tension, this just slackened it for me. I know I was supposed to be wondering what was going to happen, but what actually happened was I just distanced myself from those characters. The thing is, in a story like this you expect that the supporting cast will all die, each in a new and gruesome way. It’s the law of the trope. You know from the start you’re reading a last survivor’s account. The tension comes from how, when and who. Vandermeer takes two of these pillars away, and the last one can’t stand so well on its own.

The second device that annoyed me was the very Lovecraftian “things so terrible I dare not describe them” trick. This is supposed to leave details up to the reader’s imagination and thereby make them more terrible than if they were described outright (everyone has their own personal taste in horror, after all, and no one thing will creep everyone out) but it’s a hard trick to pull off at the best of times. The reason Vandermeer doesn’t get away with it here is that everything is in writing. Not just what the narrator is telling us, but where she is learning the information from herself. She doesn’t need to describe any of all those horrible things, because someone has already done that for her. She only has to copy or summarise, or really anything other than claim to be unable to reproduce them. It comes across as lazy, and is really quite a shame in a book that does so well at describing unimaginable things.

That’s not really a note I want to end on, though, because they really were just two single lines in a book that I inhaled in a couple of sittings. I could end on any number of positive things – the characters, the voices, the relationships between the characters and how they shift throughout the book, the nature writing. But let’s end with the last image – the woman who always sought inhuman spaces lose herself in, losing herself finally and utterly in the most inhuman space in the world.

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