The hypnotic allure of Area X
March 18, 2014
Few novels capture me as did this one, Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy. To say I couldn’t put it down doesn’t do justice to the ever-present sense of the story that followed me for days. When I wasn’t reading Annihiliation, I was thinking about reading it, spellbound by VanderMeer’s eerie Area X and the biologist who is persistent in her desire to understand it. She is among four women, including an anthropologist, psychologist and surveyor, who comprise the twelfth expedition sent by the Southern Reach, a clandestine government agency, to map the terrain, collect specimens and document the mysteries of this formerly inhabited wilderness. For 30 years, Area X, adjacent to a military base, has been cut off from civilization because of an environmental catastrophe, according to a vague official statement.
As the women hike from the border to the coastal base camp, they experience a pristine, empty landscape and take note of a derelict lighthouse in the distance, a symbol of the old order. And yet, they know something malevolent exists within the Eden-like environment. Members of the second expedition committed suicide. Members of the third shot each other. Members of the eleventh, that included the biologist’s husband, disbanded and returned to their families by unknown means with altered personalities.
On the fourth day, they discover a tunnel — or is it an underground tower? — that is neither on their maps nor in documents left by their predecessors. Words written in raised, fern-like moss cling to the left wall, churned out by an incomprehensible force from the tunnel’s depths. When the biologist leans close to study the cursive writing, a burst of spores enter her nose and heighten her senses, changing her in ways that provide clarity and a visible brightness.
Bizarre as this sounds, the plot is delivered with such sophisticated storytelling, it doesn’t seem bizarre at all. Instead, the indefinable threat that’s underlying every moment, every action and every page credibly puts us on edge in this concisely written tale of chilling, inexplicable occurrences. In addition, VanderMeer keeps us unsettled with questions about things that don’t make sense. Why does the Southern Reach continue sending expeditions? Why did they lie during training? Why do people keep volunteering to go?
The biologist narrates with a powerful combination of intelligence, curiosity and vulnerability that’s riveting. Her self-contained nature sets her apart from the others, who quickly succumb to the breaking powers of Area X. She enters the lighthouse alone, where she discovers a pile of discarded journals kept by previous expeditions, including one written by her husband. And she plumbs the furthest depths of the tunnel alone and encounters the writer of the words in an experience that is fantastical and complex — an encounter with “the most beautiful, the most terrible thing” she inadequately calls the Crawler.
I rarely care whether or not I read future books in a series, even if I was riveted by the first book. But that’s not true for the Southern Reach Trilogy. I’m impatient for the next installment. I want back into Area X, and I need to find out what’s happening with the biologist. At the end of Annihilation, she makes a decision, and I want to know where it will take her. Also, I want all those other questions answered. I simply have to know.
The three volumes of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy will be published in 2014: Annihilation (out now), Authority (May 2014) and Acceptance (September 2014).