Monday, September 29, 2014

Truly Alien--Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

Image courtesy of Bujo at Flicker CC
One thing that has always bothered me about ufologists and alien hunters is their surprising lack of imagination.

In 99 out of 100 alien movies or UFO treatises, the aliens are more or less our size, more or less bipedal humanoid creatures like ourselves, who more or less happen to share our madness for technology and also like sex with Earthlings, a lot.

I mean, seriously?

No one ever thinks that aliens might be microscopic, or bigger than multiple sperm whales, or comprised of something so strange as to be unrecognizable to human beings as life.

In fact, science is still arguing about what life is, even right here, on Earth. Definitions elude us. So, how can we look for life beyond Earth if we can't even quite understand the life in front of our noses?

The strangest life of all might be the life behind our own noses.

H.P Lovecraft understood this kind of existential strangeness, and understood how and why people avoid it. His imagination spawned worlds; he created an entire mythos around his unique and awful perception of our plight.

Lovecraft is rightly celebrated today, not just for his unique linguistic tics (settle down you eldritch cynics), but for the dense, murky tone of his writing, the way the words conjure up horrors so alien, so ancient, so beyond our most esoteric ramblings that even seasoned Lovecraft readers still shudder involuntarily when they read them.

Enter Jeff Vandermeer with his Southern Reach Trilogy.

Writing in the shadow of Lovecraft, Vandermeer takes language and chops it up in such a deft and horrible fashion that the reader is almost imperceptibly knocked off his or her personal linguistic moorings, whatever they may be, right along with the characters. In this way Vandermeer forces the reader to experience, if only vicariously, the end of personal identity and all the horror, wonder, and madness that necessarily accompanies that loss.

Vandermeer is not forming a Lovecraft tribute band with this series. He doesn't write like H.P. Lovecraft. Arkham is a good thousand (million?) miles away from the unnamed stretch of southern coast that comes to be known in his trilogy as "Area X", a mysterious tract of nature that is invaded by something preternatural and undefinable.

And yet the story is informed by Lovecraft, because early on it lays out the existential horror implied by loss of category.

Philosophy students will recognize what seem at first like gratuitous references to Jacques Derrida and Deconstructionism, but the Southern Reach Trilogy is not some dry exercise in intellectual snottiness. Although not an easy read, the trilogy zigs and zags between startling, even poetic descriptions of the natural territory and dry, irritating expositions of the inner workings of the minds of various characters.

The effect is to mire the reader inside Area X along with the characters; no small achievement, and it isn't until the last page that you realize you won't be able to forget the experience.

Annihilation, the first volume, is a good read, if a bit choppy. The choppiness is easy to forgive or ignore, because the story is original and interesting. You want answers to questions that are raised here. I, for one, could hardly wait for the second volume, Authority, to come out, even while resenting the fact that I had to wait.

But Authority, is a slog. Those questions keep the reader hooked and pushing forward, even while thinking, "Why are you doing this to me Jeff?" He has his reasons, which unfold in the final volume in ways that startle and satisfy and prove that answers are beside the point, really.

The final volume, Acceptance, really sings.  Parts of it are quite beautiful. Written in all three persons (first, second, and third) the events feel natural and preternatural all at once. At some point after finishing the final volume, I realized that I'd just read the first jazz horror novel.

Honestly it's quite brilliant.

I don't want to say too much more, for fear of spoiling the experience for readers new to the Southern Reach, but it did my heart good to see this genre reach these heights.

I think Lovecraft would have loved it.

I know I did.


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