It seems to me that Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a haunted book. It is haunted by resonances and allusions, yet it doesn’t seem to me to directly reference any other story. Instead, it seems to catch a certain mood, a certain feeling, and yet, even that I can’t quite pin down.
I finished reading Annihilation around the time I watched Tarkovsky’s Stalker (entirely coincidentally, for a seminar series I’ve been auditing), and it seemed to me that the novel and film had certain things in common. Although very different in terms of their setting, there is nonetheless that same sense that one’s surroundings are somehow rendered unknowable even as they present themselves as being in some ways quite ordinary. We have Area X and the Zone, both of them cut off from the world we know, both of them places in which ‘strange’ things apparently happen (though ‘strange’ is, of course, up for interpretation).
In some ways, the Zone is less of a mystery, in that it is clearly demarcated by physical boundaries, although these boundaries can be navigated by certain people, the Stalkers. It is what happens within the container of those boundaries that is problematic. We have only the Stalker’s word for it that the geography changes, and by geography, he seems not to mean that structures move but that the safe routes through the Zone change constantly. What he means by ‘safe’ is never made clear; the implication in both film and the original novel by the Strugatsky brothers, Roadside Picnic, is that the change is physical, otherwise why else throw metal nuts with bits of cloth tied to them onto the ground ahead. But what might these artefacts detect? We know too that the Zone can change people biologically; the Stalker’s daughter seems to possess both physical deformities but also unusual kinetic powers.
But, Tarkovsky suggests, the Zone changes people in other ways. The Stalker’s job is to lead people into the Zone, at the heart of which lies the Room, where, allegedly, their wishes will be granted. As one of the characters speculates, the ‘wish’ that is granted is perhaps not your conscious wish but your true heart’s desire, which may be not what you expected. The journey into the Zone becomes, therefore, a perverse kind of pilgrimage, a road to some sort of self-understanding.
Area X, by contrast, seems to be a topographic impossibility, its boundaries both known and unknown. It has apparently been mapped, in part at least, but its boundaries, as we learn during the novel, shift unpredictably. Access is controlled by, one infers, the Southern Reach, the mysterious group behind the expedition, and its eleven predecessors. One has to be hypnotised in order to enter because, according to the narrator, the ‘ghost bird’:
it had been explained to us that we would need to cross the border with precautions to protect against our minds tricking us. Apparently hallucinations were common. At least, this is what they told us. I no longer can be sure it was the truth. (11. All page numbers taken from US proof so may vary slightly in final text.)
There are so many layers of ambiguity in even this one short quotation, it is impossible to determine who might be deceiving whom, even without taking into account that this is a first-person narration by someone with a particular reason for getting into Area X in the first place. To note but a few, the narrator believes herself to have become contaminated by spores from lichen, yet she may or may not already be hypnotised, or be affected in other ways that haven’t been accounted for. Plus, her account when made, is made from memory rather than notes. And that is before we start wondering about what it is they had been hypnotised to see, or not see. Need I go on?
Well, yes, why not, because for much of the novel I also found myself remembering over and over, a few lines from Karen Joy Fowler’s short story set in Africa, ‘What I Didn’t See’: ‘We seven went into the jungle with guns in our hands and love in our hearts. I say so now when there is no one left to contradict me’. And also thinking, thanks to the ‘ghost bird’, of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland (The Little White Bird was a collection of stories by Barrie, centred on Kensington Gardens and featuring Peter Pan). Which is a pretty odd combination but by now you might be realising that this novel digs into the brain in very curious ways.
So, the story, in its baldest terms, concerns an expedition entering an area which has been cut off from the rest of a continent for a long period of time. In truth, we have no idea where it is, what it is, or why it is, other than its having been abandoned ‘for reasons that are not easy to relate’. What does the expedition hope to find there? It is not at all clear. The first group returned with stories of an untouched landscape (and here I think momentarily of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World), but many of the subsequent groups seem to have been sent in to try to account for what happened to their predecessors, starting with the second group, all of whose members committed suicide, and the third group, all of whom turned their guns on one another. The eleventh group did return, not in an orderly fashion, but separately, somehow drifting home, changed, later to die of cancer. (And here one might be thinking of Chernobyl’s aftermath, or more recently, of Fukashima and what might be to come.)
The twelfth group comprises a biologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, a linguist and a psychologist, the last being the group leader. The linguist never makes it into Area X at all, for reasons that remain unclear. The others know little about one another, having been encouraged not to volunteer personal information to one another. Their expedition is oddly outfitted, devoid of all modern communication devices, with the team being urged to keep individual paper journals. The rules about the handling of weapons are also very strict, after what happened to previous expeditions. Beyond that there is a sense of the expedition having been underprepared for this foray. Clearly they have been but the ghost bird seems oddly reticent about passing on this information, as though we are interrogators rather than readers. We glean information from her comments and asides but rarely does she directly supply useful information.
Thus, as the novel opens, we learn of the tower’s presence first as a lack of absence – the tower, ‘which was not supposed to be there’ – and as if that were not enough are thrown further off-course by learning that it ‘plunges into the earth’. It is tempting to read this tower as a direct analogue to the lighthouse with which everyone seems obsessed, in a peculiarly Woolfian fashion. Similarly, it is tempting to read both it and the lighthouse as phallic symbols, in some way embodying the land’s fertility. And it is in many ways a fecund area, rampant with plant life, though the presence of animals is more shadowy, and humans are visible only through what they have left behind: ‘rotting cabins with sunken, red-tinged roofs, rusted wagon-wheel spokes half-buried in the dirt, and the barely seen outlines of what used to be enclosures for livestock’ (5). It’s hard not to think of the 1930s Dustbowl when reading that description, and in it perhaps is a clue to some of what is happening here. Put simply, this is no longer a landscape that can tolerate the presence of human beings.
Much of the early part of the novel revolves around the exploration of the ‘tower’ or shaft, and what it might contain. This penetration of the earth, this exploration of its mysteries, brings with it resonances of other stories, such as a Vernian descent towards the centre of the world, a Lovecraftian exploration of tunnels built by other lifeforms, or any number of stories concerning the rediscovery of lost civilisations, particularly those centring on ancient tombs. Again, one has the sense that Vandermeer is deliberately tapping into particular veins of storytelling.
What happens below ground is difficult to fathom, that encounter between human and vegetation, when the team encounters strange writing on the wall, made apparently by plants. What drives an apparent need to communicate, to whom and about what. The traces of the encounter are impossible to record with old-fashioned photographic equipment. It is almost as though someone wants to prevent the record being made, and to erase the encounter even as it happens. It comes as no surprise when the expedition begins to lose people. We already infer that as the narrator, the biologist will survive to tell the story, but to whom and at what cost remains uncertain for much of the novel. Gradually, the story moves from one of simple exploration and murder to one of a battle of wills between the biologist and the other remaining survivor, but even then motives remain uncertain.
The biologist believes herself to have been contaminated by the spores she inhaled underground, but equally, it may be that this encounter has stripped her of illusion rather than driven her mad. Or, as she recounts her life before the expedition, it may be that she was better prepared than anyone else simply because she was already so self-contained. Which is not to say that this is a story, or at any rate, not just a story about quiet madness. Perhaps better to say that the biologist has a better developed feeling for this landscape than the others because she doesn’t carry with her the same set of expectations. She is open to the terrain, at least sensing the sublime that lurks out there rather than wanting to reduce it to quantifiable objects. Indeed, it may be that an understanding of the Burkean sublime, of the way in which beauty and terror are so closely allied, is at the heart of this novel. Or the way in which nature can strip people of their identity as the raw impulse to survive overwhelms the more refined impulses which mark us as human.
And yet, it was humans who sent other humans into Area X, all neatly labelled by their functions. Only the ghost bird retains a name, and that is one bestowed on her by a husband who found it difficult to maintain contact with his wife. One of the markers of this novel is a ongoing sense of failure to communicate. The expedition can’t communicate with the people ‘back home’ except in certain very specific ways. They have no means of rescue except to wait in a certain designated spot and to hope. There is no way of tracking their progress and, based on something the biologist finds at the lighthouse, there may not be that much interest in their observations anyway. Indeed, the lighthouse, a familiar promise of safety, seems to function as anything but.
Annihilation is not a conventional novel on any level you care to name. It is a little of many things, brought together in the crucible of Area X, a place which seems more like a lab bench than anything else, the question being who precisely is experimenting on whom. There is no easy slotting together of pieces of a puzzle, not least because it remains unclear what the puzzle might actually be. Events work on the characters and on the reader too. One turns the pages looking for an answer, while knowing full well that one is unlikely to be forthcoming, certainly not one that makes any real sense. Instead, one sifts through many fragments, trying to make a whole, all the while becoming increasingly uneasy. It tests the reader as constructor of narrative and confounds that same reader at every turn. So much of what it portrays is inaccessible and unknowable, even as it makes its presence felt on the page. To me that is a fascinating thing, which is in part why I ‘enjoyed’ this novel so much, and why I look forward to its sequels.