Reading

Books: The Southern Reach trilogy

I love Jeff Vandermeer’s work because I love HP Lovecraft’s work. But I enjoy Vandermeer more.

Horror describes the ways in which people strive to escape the painful and grisly annihilation of the self. It can be personal or impersonal, understandable or insensate. It can also describe our confrontation with the unfathomable.

This last is my favourite category of horror, in which we are confronted by that which we cannot comprehend. The ‘foe’, such as it is, symbolises an unknowable, immensely powerful other. It annihilates our sense of who we are, what we know or can know; it is a (tentacled) nihilistic force that may not even mean us harm as it flattens our metaphysics. We are helpless, infants before it.

That this characterisation might equally apply to our gods ought worry us more than it does.

So, Lovecraft’s stories track the growing insanity of those that encounter or pursue the experience, or even just knowledge, of the Great Old Ones.

Much of Vandermeer’s work similarly explores the relationship and discord between human and alien life.

In the Southern Reach trilogy, he explores more completely and poignantly our incapacity to deconstruct, to ‘framework’ in the adjectival sense, the experience of, in this case, ‘Area X’.

The trilogy introduces us to a secret government department called ‘Southern Reach’, a complex which lies on the strange border to this mysterious part of what keeps being referred to as a ‘forgotten coastline’.

It starts, in Annihilation, with the four members of the twelfth expedition entering into Area X. All the expeditions so far have been diasastrous and very little has apparently been learned or understood.

Our narrator is known only as ‘the biologist’ for it has been deemed unwise to introduce personal names to Area X (and throughout the trilogy, real names are barely referred to, a narrative device that bolsters Vandermeer’s intent). The first novel describes how, inevitably of course, the expedition falls apart, but it cuts back and forth between this and her reflections on her life to that point, including reflections on her relationship with her husband, who was part of the eleventh expedition. Many return, including him, in strange circumstances, but while his expedition all died of cancer shortly after returning, no returnee, it seems, carries with them any reflections on their experiences in Area X beyond anodyne recollections of complete normality or, instead, silence.

No spoilers here, but the second and third novels take a similar approach to this. However, the chronology of events, and the history of Area X, is pieced together in a timeline of multiple interweaving narratives and epistles, all of which enhance each other, and the events we’ve read about previously, as they go.

The horror of Area X, such as it is, is not a simple one. The success of these novels lie in our growing intimacy with the lives and flaws of our narrators as they confront what Area X could be and could mean, while being broken by the dissonance of that; our humanity, our precious but incontrovertibly subjective meaning undone by whatever it is that exists in Area X. As with Mark Danielewski’s House of Broken Leaves, which for me treads very similar thematic and narrative ground, our mastery of the universe is broken, obliterated. Our narrators then try to process this when they know the processing tools they have cannot be up to the job. How does that leave us? What actions must we then choose as we face an impersonal infinite? How like ants to humans must we be to that which exists on a spectrum far more vast?

Lovecraft never satisfactorily explored these questions. But it’s only possible for me to say that because of the excellence of this trilogy.