I read Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, all three of which are set to be published by this fall. A trilogy with a short turnaround time, and which already has a movie deal! Awesome reviews from NPR, Salon.com, the Post and the Telegraph. A scifi horror novel that was going to rock my world! How could I lose?
I'm not sure why it was so unsuccessful for me. The language was interesting, and vaguely unsettling, like reading Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet. In The Flame Alphabet, language itself has become poisonous, and reading Marcus's prose was deeply uncomfortable. The writing was deliberately ugly and felt rotten, somehow. I was in awe, even as I cannot claim to have enjoyed my reading experience. VanderMeer is not as gifted a stylist as Marcus, but Annihilation has some of the same discomfort in the writing, especially when the book describes the living, possibly homicidal fungus. Yes, Gentle Readers, you did read that correctly. Killer fungus. With a brain. And a score to settle.
The plot, too, looked promising. Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for years. No one knows what happened, or why. Scientific expeditions continue to try to explore Area X, looking for answers. Expedition 1 reported a new Eden. Expedition 2 all committed suicide. Expedition 3 opened fire on one another. ...This is Expedition 12.
This new expedition is all female, and no one has names, including our narrator. Each woman is merely named for her job: the biologist, the surveyor. They are allowed no contemporary technology; nothing that might connect them to the outside world. Their primary mission is to collect data without being infected by Area X itself. That directive doesn't go well.
The narration is fabulously unreliable. We see the plot through the journal entries of the biologist, who is deeply flawed, emotionally detached, and most likely contaminated by the craziness of Area X. We can trust precisely nothing she says. The paranoia (ours and hers) only increases when we discover that all the expedition members have been hypnotized multiple times and are now tasked with watching one another. The expedition members can trust no one, we can't even trust our narrator, and--of course--not all is what it seems!
This expedition finds a tunnel into the earth (or a tower which descends underground) where phosphorescent microcreatures outline a message on the walls: Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner... We find out that there is a 'presence' of some kind in the tower, a writer of this neo-pseudo-Biblical doggerel. Oh, and the tower isn't really a building because it breathes. And so forth.
Unfortunately, the very things that drew me to the novel proved to be disappointing. I love a good psychological horror story, even more if it's complex and layered. This narrator seemed too acquiescent about her descending madness, so you see no struggle for clarity, as you do in something like House of Leaves or even The Yellow Wallpaper. She knows she’s going mad, but just kind of “goes with it,” which I found irritating. Either embrace the crazy or fight it, but do something!
The horror buildup, as the narrator stalks whatever creepy-crawly is writing the verse on the walls of the inverted tower, is quite good. But once the biologist encounters the horror in the flesh, as it were, it’s a total let-down. The Crawler is so amorphously described that it’s not at all frightening, or even engaging. I was bored. And that’s never what a reader should feel when meeting “the Big Bad.”
But I am distinctly in the minority here, as Annihilation is still getting rave reviews. I don't get what all the fuss is about, but maybe I am not the right audience. I'm happy to skip books 2 and 3, and will probably not catch the film, either. The trilogy from the Southern Reach just didn't do it for me. I'll have to find my psychological horror elsewhere. Maybe Real Housewives is on...