Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer is one of the strangest, most dream-like novels I’ve ever read. I struggle to find anything to compare it to – some other reviews have noted the Atwood similarities, particularly with the alternations between following the present and reflections upon a melancholy, difficult past – but for the first three quarters of the book, the only thing I could think of was video games.
Not just any video games – not Super Smash Brothers or Halo or the like. Rather, it made me think of the lonely, survivor/mystery games that have never seemed to really break into the blockbuster mainstream, games like Myst or Silent Hill or the online games where a nameless protagonist is trapped in a room riddled with obscure messages. These games are often cult classics that are difficult to duplicate and difficult to explain why they’re enjoyable – because in so many of these games, there’s long stretches of silence in which either very little happens or very little is understood.
These games use something that novels can use only very rarely, and often with little success: the unknown.
And I mean the complete unknown. Not the whole, “what’s in that room, I can’t see it” unknown, but the “who is this protagonist, why are they here, what’s going on” sort of unknown, an unknown in which much is happening and everything suggests hidden meanings, but at the end of it, it’s impossible to conclude exactly what is going on. Novels can’t often do this – without the immediate action of video games, the unknowability leaves little to grab onto in a book – but to my disbelief, Annihilation succeeds. This quality, of course, must tread a very thin line between tantalization and frustration, but Annihilation does so, perhaps aided by the length of the book (I suspect it’d be quite hard to maintain this over 500 pages) and the stick-to-the-facts nature of the protagonist.
What to say of the protagonist? It’s hard for me to decide. She is a biologist (this is the only name we have for her), part of a team of women sent to explore a strange place. With her are a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. But the biologist, we find, is untrustworthy and unreliable, both because of who she is and because of her circumstances.
She has arrived in a verdant, natural, but somewhat alien location described only as Area X, and in order to make this journey she and the rest of her team of explorers had to be hypnotized. This hypnosis, as we quickly gather, was far more pervasive than she and the reader thought, and soon the reader has an abundance of reasons to distrust her. Does she know why she’s here? Why was it so important for her not to know? What is this place? What happened here, and why does she not know? What has she been programmed to do? Why is it that everyone in this team has so thoroughly shrugged off their names? They came to this place through a door – but where is this door?
The first indication at how strange and bewildering this protagonist would be was, for me, a scene in which they discover a vast underground staircase, tunneling straight down into the earth. This is the first scene of the novel, but what makes it strange is that the biologist begins by calling it a “tower.” It’s only when her compatriots begin describing it as a tunnel that it makes it clear to the reader that what she is observing and recording may not be as linked to the real world as a reader would assume. She insists on calling it a tower, and her frustration builds and builds until, out of the blue in a strategic conversation:
“I want you to know that I cannot stop thinking of it as a tower,” I confessed. “I can’t see it as a tunnel.” It seemed important to make the distinction before our descent, even if it influenced their evaluation of my mental state. I saw a tower, plunging into the ground. The thought that we stood at its summit made me a little dizzy.
All three stared at me then, as if I were the strange cry at dusk, and after a moment the psychologist said, grudgingly, “If that helps make you more comfortable, then I don’t see the harm.”
This scene actually provoked nervous laughter in me. What a peculiar thing to do! What a peculiar thing to think, as if insisting a car was a sailboat or a road a river! What is the meaning of her strange association, we wonder? And yet it quickly becomes apparent that the rest of the team is just as damaged, paranoid, and untrustworthy as she.
The book is a meditation on observation and mimicry, I think, a book about observers sent to observe something that cannot be observed. Something vast and alive and intelligent is living in or below or around Area X, performing strange acts for unknowable reasons – in some ways, the book’s closest cousin is Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. These people were sent here to witness something that cannot be witnessed.
In another aspect, though, perhaps the book functions as an exploration of relationships: the biologist agreed to go to Area X only because her husband was on the previous expedition, and mysteriously returned in a strange state and quickly died of cancer. Her reflections upon their difficult, dissolving marriage are among the book’s most moving. There is a reason she carries a microscope with her wherever she goes: she chooses to be a watcher, an observer, but never engaged, never open or intermingling, and it is this nature that doomed their relationship. As the story proceeds, the unknowability of other humans parallels with the unknowability of Area X – though it suggests, however peripherally, that perhaps love can function much like spores: a series of small, insignificant, invisible gestures and moments that land upon the mind and form fruiting bodies, slowly colonizing you in a manner that is both inextricable and terrifying and lovely.
Toward the end of the book I became increasingly aware that this was the first in a trilogy. Some was explained at the end (maybe too much, I sometimes wondered – the tantalizing opaqueness dissolves as the biologist begins to lift the veil on the nature of Area X, and sometimes I wished the book ended with my knowing as little as I started), but much of it is not concluded. I look forward to reading the rest of the series the moment they become available.