This isn’t the kind of book I normally read, but these are not normal times.
Today is April 3rd, and this is my third full day of being officially unemployed. To stave off contemplation of the void, I spent April 1st and April 2nd reading a massive nerdy sci-fi horror book, and it kinda did what I needed, though exiting out of it the other side is surprisingly… err… yeah.
Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy is a 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, though to call it a “trilogy” rather than a single work in three parts would be a bit of a fucking stretch. I think it was originally published in three volumes, but I’ve only ever seen – though I’ve never looked for – this massive one containing the whole story. This is, from what I’ve just read, the only way it should be published.
The first part, Annihilation, was familiar to me – and may be familiar to you – as it was one of the first big budget films made by Netflix a couple of years ago. Natalie Portman was in it.
Annihilation is the only part of Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy that could possibly work as a standalone novel. It’s also – somewhat strangely – about half the length of both part two (Authority) and part three (Acceptance).
Narratively, the second and third parts are merely extensions of the story that begins in Annihilation. Maybe I’m displaying ignorance here, but I always thought that “trilogy” meant a collection of three separate narratives, rather than one that is stretched out over three books. I don’t know, as “trilogies” don’t pop up in texts written for adult grown-ups very often, so they’re not something I’ve encountered regularly since pre-pubescence. By this I mean, you don’t need to have read Wolf Hall to read Bring Up The Bodies. Et cetera. (I have no other examples (or counter examples) from literature.)
People – people like me – refer to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Knausgaard’s My Struggle as singular novels, and doing so is correct. Sitting and reading either of those very, very long novels from cover to cover (even with no distractions bar sleep, meals, poos and wees) would take far more than two and a bit days, but it would probably provide the most evocative experience available from either.
I didn’t want to spend several weeks within the same literary text, but I did want a few days of drowning in text. I needed the distraction. I wanted to forget, or ignore, coronavirus. I wanted to forget or ignore the fact that I can’t really go outside, that I’ve been made redundant, and I also wanted a few more days of grace before I began engaging with my to-do list, as it has steadily grown over the past few months when I was working near-constantly.
I needed distraction. So, I read a big, trashy, book.
Yes, it was distracting, yes, it was evocative. But it was also deeply fucking disturbing and has given me nothing but intense nightmares in the nights since it began.
Area X is about a place that isn’t real, a place that isn’t possible.
People go into the area known as “Area X” and never return. People go in and return insane. People go in and return riddled with terminal cancer. People go in and return in a form that seems the same but, somehow, it isn’t them.
It’s like properly scary (to me) and as the book goes on, the reader sees more and more of the internal workings of the agency that is studying “Area X”: this agency is the titular “Southern Reach”.
The narrative begins with a low level employee sent on one of the many doomed missions into Area X; the second part is about a middle manager transferred into Southern Reach with instructions to run it properly; while the third section leaps backwards and forwards in and out of flashbacks from numerous characters, exposing the little that is known about Area X and what is likely to happen to it after the narrative ends.
It’s strange, and it’s a story that could literally never happen in real life (it’s all like aliens and mutants and mind-control and hypnosis and shady government organisations studying supernatural events etc), but VanderMeer’s efficient, direct, prose manages to give a clear sense of the vague experiences his characters have when they encounter the inconsistencies and impossibilities of the magical, sinister, Area X.
Reading Area X, I always felt VanderMeer was in control of his narrative, even as I and all his characters were confused. It was controlled; precisely described obscurity.
Though this isn’t the kinda book I usually read and not the kinda thing I’m likely to go near again for a while, it was pleasant to be sucked into a transparently fictional world for a little while, before being deposited back in the strange societal collapse that is the COVID-19 lockdown.
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