Sunday, September 28, 2014

book review: annihilation by jeff vandermeer

i wasn't quite sure what to make of this book at first. the opening pages moved slowly but as soon as the four female unnamed research explorers (our narrator the biologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist, and the psychologist -- the leader of this party, the ostensible twelfth expedition to area X, a place that they have been trained to explore, a place that wasn't always there, a place encroaching on their border) venture to the tower, i found myself riveted and really anxious about what was happening and where the hell they actually were (is this really our earth? an alternate one? has our earth breached an alternate dimension?), and by the end was substantially spooked, in the best of lovecraftian ways. the novel strongly evokes and expands on ideas from his "the colour out of space", lovecraft's own favourite, and the story of his i love most, alongside "the shadow over innsmouth". vandermeer's prose is wonderfully crafted and moves the reader slowly and insidiously closer to chaos, as the biologist flickers on and follows her own trail as the expedition falls apart, all the while the possible? inevitable? infection coating her insides until her final stand-off inside the tower. the horror vandermeer drenches this moment with, in pulse-pounding, mind-splitting images also reminded me of one of my own negative personal experiences: drug-addled terror and anxiety that built within me at a rave one night many years ago, when the dancers and the lights seemed to combine into an unholy wall of pulsing flesh. i recognized this horror and i shrank from it again.

this is the first book of a three-part series that was released in quick succession over the quarters of 2014 -- i very much like this marketing concept -- it reminds me of when volumes of books were published separately before they were available as a whole. after reading annihilation, i immediately put library holds on the two others because i am curious as to where vandermeer will go from here.

i've looked over other reviews of this first book and found that readers are quite divided: many really enjoy the book, as i did, finding in it a remarkable addition to the canon of weird fiction, while others compare the book to the television program, lost, and complain that there is not enough pay-off and that the book alienates them through via the use of the unnamed and unreliable narrator. while obviously there are always different strokes for different folks, i can understand how the pace and the distance that using an unnamed narrator unfailingly creates, and was no doubt chosen by the author to underscore the biologist's alienated and isolating personality could have the same effect on his reader: "i don't like this character and i don't care what happens because you're not giving me any answers that make sense" -- certainly, i have reacted in the same way in regard to other stories, and the biologist admittedly keeps doing things she supposes she ought not to have done after the fact, that i would argue make it more difficult to get behind her at times, but the notion that she is an unreliable narrator bothered me. while i appreciate she might fit the definition in broad terms because she believes that the psychologist has done something to her, using hypnosis not only to trigger certain behaviours but also to alter her memories and also withholds details of her story as she reveals her experience in area x, i do believe she holds nothing crucial back from the reader, and that she believes she is earnestly telling us the truth -- more perhaps, than she has ever told before. this may be close the real world but it's still speculative fiction and i think these devices work in that realm only to enhance horror, not to make you doubt your narrator. the book is actually a tremendous feat of authorial engineering, employing such devices to create a book seemingly simply told, writhing with reference and unfurling like its central nightmare, a terrifying crawler that invades our psyches and our world.

Creative Commons License
This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Mo chortled wickedly: "after reading annihilation, i immediately put library holds on the two others because i am curious as to where vandermeer will go from here."

    I thought you were a criminal who had abused the Canadian library system! Are you planning to loiter with these books also?! You and your "holds"!

    1. oh hurray! i wondered where you'd gone, my dearest lambie mctuffie! of course, my brain was broken for almost a whole year so i wasn't able to voice my despair (and no, i was not residing in a saskatchewan penal colony)

      i love you!