Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, October 23, 2014

on the Southern Reach Trilogy

Having read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and thought about it for a while, I’ve decided that I don’t like it as much as I thought I would.

To be sure, some things about it are fantastic: the first volume in particular is sublimely creepy. But I am not sure whether the novel as a whole — and it is one novel broken into three parts, like Lord of the Rings — pays back the investment of time required to read 900 pages.

Mac Rogers, who likes the story very much, says this about it:

This frustration that manifests over and over throughout the trilogy — as the characters repeatedly fail not only to solve the mystery of Area X, but indeed to even meaningfully perceive it — doesn’t feel like a cheat, but rather a natural outgrowth of how these books see humanity. We’re isolated. We’re easily manipulated. We don’t cooperate. We’re poorly suited to our natural habitat, and insignificant in the face of its untamed grandeur. We care more about our image of ourselves, our identity, than about our interaction with the world around us. The colossal physical and spiritual transformation Area X represents is beyond human reference.

I think this is a very plausible read. The question is whether the book makes this point well, vividly, compellingly. The admirable Adam Roberts thinks it does. Writing particularly about the first volume, he argues that “what makes this book so remarkable is less what happens in it, and more its tense, eerie and unsettling vibe. Creating such an atmosphere is a balancing act: on the one hand, the writer must not destroy the mood with too much brute explanation; and on the other, he must not alienate the reader by being too annoyingly oblique. VanderMeer hits exactly the right balance.”

And Roberts thinks this continues to the end: “Finding a way satisfactorily to pay off so much mysteriously tense apprehension is no small challenge for a writer – and VanderMeer manages to avoid banality and opacity both, and generates some real emotional charge while he's about it.” Mac Rogers also talks about the book’s “payoffs,” and also thinks they are significant. I don’t. I’m okay with not getting standard-issue resolutions to mysteries if I get something of equal or greater value instead, but I don’t think that happens here. It seems to me that we know very little more at the conclusion of the novel than we knew at its outset, and what we do learn suffers from unnecessary “opacity” — is, indeed, “annoyingly oblique” in light of the investment of time and energy the book asks of its readers.

And I suspect that the book’s lack of resolution — so many of its major characters (all but one, I’d say) left in mid-journey, and some complications introduced in the third volume for no apparent reason — may be a set-up for a sequel. I don’t mind spending 300 pages being set up for a sequel, but 900? That’s too much to ask.

If my suspicion is correct — if we get a sequel that provides more conventional forms of resolution for the characters, and more conventional answers to the mysteries raised in these volumes — I wonder if Rogers and Roberts will need to revisit their praise for the balance between mystery and revelation they think VanderMeer achieves here. Wouldn’t more clarity be too much?

With all these complaints registered, I want to close by commending the books for their unusual and often eloquent attentiveness to the details of the natural world — and for raising the possibility that there could be massively powerful intelligences that encounter the natural world in ways totally alien to our own — in ways more like the way that animals and plants interact with one another, whether cooperatively, symbiotically, or violently. In another essay Roberts refers to the book as “strange pastoral”, and I think that’s a brilliant designation, and helps to show what the story of the Southern Reach does accomplish.

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