The Weird is Out

Just over halfway through Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014), the first volume of an eco-sci-fi thriller trilogy, the biologist narrator, while exploring a derelict lighthouse within a fatally altered coastal wilderness, stumbles on a vast cache of her predecessors’ research:

The journals and other materials formed a moldering pile about twelve feet high and sixteen feet wide that in places near the bottom had clearly turned to compost, the paper rotting away. […] I would have to lower myself down into the midden by means of the ladder nailed to the lip of the trapdoor and trudge through a collapsing garbage hill of disintegrating pulp to uncover anything at all (p. 111).

This sounded to me uncannily like an editor facing a massive slush pile. And then I read VanderMeer on co-editing an anthology of weird tales with his sci-fi and fantasy editor wife Ann: ‘The experience changed me fundamentally, in ways I’m only now beginning to understand.’ Like the expedition members in Annihilation who never come back from Area X, because all of them either die or undergo a mysterious transformation?

To return to the biologist, below the lantern room in the lighthouse:

I made some initial rules, as if that would help. I ignored journals that appeared to be written in a shorthand and did not try to decipher those that appeared to be in code. I also started out reading some journals straight through and then decided to force myself to skim. But sampling was sometimes worse. I came across pages that described unspeakable acts that I still cannot bring myself to set down in words (p.113).

It’s as if VanderMeer, taking us on a journey into the uncanny, wants to acknowledge his sources; to implicate them in an ecology of ideas. Yet to limit analysis to a genre context (Fantasy? Horror? New Weird?) is to miss the wealth of possible analogies: techno-digital, sociopolitical, psycho-spiritual… take your pick. VanderMeer seems enchanted by the zone where science meets the inexplicable. Referring to Bruno Schulz’s work, among others, in a piece on weird writers, he says: ‘So it joins the mulch, the thick substrate, that at some point manifests in one’s own stories, biography rising in altered form indistinguishable from fiction …’ And the moss-festooned cypress swamps in Annihilation evoked the southern states for me before I learned where VanderMeer lives: this love letter to North Florida provides a vivid setting from which he can more plausibly transport us to unknown regions — just as The Metamorphosis (1915), though surreally weird, is anchored in the mundane facts of Kafka’s experience. Apparently, the entire narrative of Annihilation forms the unnamed biologist’s unique contribution to an ongoing secret government investigation:

Can you really imagine what it was like in those first moments, peering down into that dark space, and seeing that? Perhaps you can. Perhaps you’re staring at it now (p. 106).

She’s writing a journal for the researchers who she assumes will succeed her. Yet maybe she’s also addressing the readers of other stories that cross the border between the ordinary and the supernatural? Of course it’s unbelievable that this orchestrated account, despite the fact that VanderMeer wrote it with bad bronchitis in just five weeks, could have been penned by anyone during the course of a risky wilderness mission involving continual traumatic stress. No, the timely flashbacks, measured tone and deftly managed suspense point to professional feedback and shrewd editing. Yet such is the genre reader’s need to suspend disbelief.

VanderMeer, though, offers vistas beyond the seductions of genre. Fans of escapist fantasy/horror may find themselves disoriented. Early on in the expedition, while exploring an inverted lighthouse (a tower-like structure descending into the ground), the narrator inhales some unidentified fungal spores, from whence her senses become increasingly heightened. VanderMeer denies ever having tried magic mushrooms (his substances of choice seem to be red wine and cannabis), but I found the progressive alteration of the biologist’s state reminiscent of trips taken when young, amid natural settings, during which I felt as if I’d been plunged into a fungal perspective: humans and plants alike radiated auras, all sounds cocooned me in symphonic unity, and colours pulsed with psychedelic intensity. Would VanderMeer like to expand the reader’s mind to the extent that other, possibly subtler, forms of consciousness can enter?

Contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton, with whom VanderMeer’s work strikes a chord, says of Area X: ‘It’s like the more you look at something – looking doesn’t necessarily demystify things.’ Which segues into their discussing porosity, and Morton continues:

… there’s this idea that we all live in these totally shrink-wrapped worlds with this very strong inside/outside distinction. It’s obviously ecologically quite toxic, and I think in contemporary philosophy, there’s generally a trend where the distinction between inside and outside has become very thin and very rigid.

Like many weird writers (from China Miéville to Haruki Murakami), VanderMeer dwells on the threat of contamination, on how the known self might get tainted, overtaken, cloned, irrevocably changed. His narrator isn’t a character with whom most readers would care to identify: ‘If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish (pp. 192–3).’

An initial side effect of inhaling alien spores, though, which the biologist wisely keeps to herself, is immunity to the group leader’s hypnotic suggestions. Is VanderMeer hinting that the surrender of rigid ego boundaries might offer unexpected benefits?

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