Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Annihilation: A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer

In the 1990s computer game “Myst,”  players wandered from scene to scene, picking up clues (if they recognized them), trying to figure out the nature of the mystery, to figure out what the real goal of the game might be.  In “Myst” you begin with no idea of what the point is.  You’re just in a a space, and you start moving around.  Annihilation: A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer (Macmillan, 2014) reminded me of “Myst,” although it provides more exposition than the game did.  The narrator is an unnamed woman who is a member of a team sent to investigate Area X, an unidentified place apparently in the coastal area of the American Southeast—a place where “something” has happened.  What “something” is isn’t clear, but it may involve an alien invasion.  Eleven previous expeditions failed to discover the nature of Area X, where unknown forces can apparently distort human perceptions.  It’s never exactly clear what is going on in this novel.  There are long stretches where nothing happens, and then when something does happen you’re not sure what it is, or what it means, and neither is the narrator.  The novel evokes an atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty that is never dispelled.  Much of it involves explorations of a tower or tunnel that appears to be embedded in the ground, and a lighthouse.  Something is writing words on the inner walls of the tower/tunnel, and their vaguely Biblical meaning are frequently repeated.   The challenging aspect of point of view in this novel is that everything is suspect—the narrator, her understanding of what is happening, her identity, the past, the future.  This is the ultimate unreliable narrative.  The narrator’s involvement in the mysteries of the novel, which directly engages with the question of fate, identity, and the questionable meanings of reality, is deeply moving at times.  I appreciate the novel but don’t feel driven towards reading the second and the third volumes of the The Southern Reach Trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first part.

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