Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review of Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

I am often a visual thinker, and upon completion of the third and final book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: Southern Reach trilogy called Acceptance, I’m left with the image of a person standing. Annihilation forms one leg and Authority the other, while Acceptance forms the remainder of the body. Another way of saying this is, where Annihilation and Authority are capable of standing alone, Acceptance is built on the two novels, and in turn gives the overall storyline its complete visage.

And I have this image in mind for a few reasons. Annihilation, while flashing back to the Biologist’s life in the real world, was primarily set inside Area X. Authority was the opposite; Control read accounts and saw video of others’ experiences inside the strange region, but his story was set in the real-world, the world outside the physics-defying barrier separating Area X from normality. Acceptance is set in both, as well as stretches the timeframe to the series' max.

Forming appendages and limbs—perhaps even a head, Acceptance likewise shifts away from single viewpoints to take in a broader sweep of characters . Along with storylines featuring the Biologist and Control, VanderMeer adds viewpoints from the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans, set years in the past, as well as a woman named Gloria who has held various positions in the narrative to date. Her story set largely before the events of Annihilation but after Evans’, it forms an important link, past to present, regarding VanderMeer’s deeper purposes of the trilogy—or at least one.

In the time before Area X, an occult group is playing games with the lighthouse’s lens. Annoying the keeper Evans, he nevertheless experiences something strange one day. Stabbed by a flower, he begins having nightmares. The little girl Gloria grows up in the area that one day will become Area X, and is even friends with Evans. In her adult years, after the strange anomaly has taken over the region, she becomes employed by the Southern Reach. Not as an expedition member, however, she has no chance of entering the area officially, and therefore contrives with a fellow staff member to enter illicitly one night. The two having inexplicable experiences inside, they nevertheless survive, and as part of her punishment once back inis made director by the mad Lowry. Discovering she has cancer as a result of her excursion changes everything.

Jumping between times and characters (not to mention the less-than-tangible sense of reality to Area X), the storyline of Acceptance is more complex than the first two novels. But it is not complexity simply for the simple sake of being complex, or profound. The Biologist and Control’s storylines left somehow hanging after Annihilation and Authority, in Acceptance VanderMeer provides complementary fates, fates satisfactory at the story/personal level while explicatory at the thematic/content level. With the addition of Evans and Gloria’s characters, however, the body of the trilogy is filled out, the aforementioned ‘complete visage’ as it were. Providing key linkages between plot points and story elements introduced thus far, they likewise provide a much broader database of information from which the reader can draw conclusions about the meaning of Area X. It’s no spoiler to say VanderMeer is too coy to explain things directly to the reader; that could have been implied from the start. But in the very least the larger number of data points help the reader pinpoint more specific perspectives on the reality and purpose of the trilogy.

Upon completion of Annihilation, it was my opinion that the novel, while certainly capable of being interpreted in a variety of other ways, was somehow focused on humanity’s collection of knowledge to date, the remaining lack thereof, and the effect of each on the contemporary, 21st century mindset. Science has given mankind a great deal of information, as well as asked a lot of big questions, but it still has yet to entirely explain existence, material or otherwise. The variety of human reaction confronting this idea is where the novel, and as I’m now indirectly stating, the trilogy achieves its success. VanderMeer feels to be running out of gas in this, the final novel in the trilogy; there are times the flow and prose seem a little sluggish. But at an overview , the ideological structure remains intact.

The Strugatsky brother’s Roadside Picnic; David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus; J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World; Franz Kafka’a The Castle; Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit; Albert Camus’ The Stranger; Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris—these and a variety of other novels have forced the reader to confront the subjectivity of existence in a variety of alienating scenarios. VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy, capped off by Acceptance, joins this fine company. Finding his own wires and cables in the human brain to tinker with via a highly unique setting, its no small feat of talent to so continuously locate the unsettling space between tangible and intangible reality. A niche that is not so abstract as to distract, and not so identifiable as to be commonplace, VanderMeer completes a trio of novels, the visage of a figurative body remaining.

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