19 September 2014

Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff Vandermeer
Fourth Estate, 2/9/14
Hardback, 352 pages

Warning: this review has mild spoilers for the earlier books "Annihilation" and "Authority" - if you haven't read those yet (and why haven't you?) don't read any further.

In the third part of the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer seemed to have set himself an impossible task, both to match the standard of the previous books and to draw the narrative to a close despite having pretty well established his "other" - that baffling Area X - as unknowable, ineffable. It's a sign of just how good the writing is that he manages the latter at all, let alone, as he does, giving new insights into his characters, creating a pacey, gripping story and leaving the reader with a LOT to think about.

This is a more complex book (structurally and thematically) than the other two. "Annihilation" followed a single, disastrous expedition into Area X, a mysterious, impenetrable region somewhere on the southern flank of the US. "Authority" was apparently a more conventional (...for some value of "conventional"...) story of administration and espionage set in the Southern Reach, the organisation overseeing Area X, which documented the attempts by a new Director ("Control") to grasp what exactly was happening. "Acceptance" dots backwards and forwards, now following Control and Ghost Bird returning to Area X after the events of "Authority", now now following the former Director, now going back to Saul, the lighthouse keeper, before the creation of Area X or to the previous Director and her dangerous plan to... well, that would be telling.

All these are enthralling narratives, sparely told. Though much remains baffling and unclear, we learn a lot about what has been happening - Central's brutal attempts to manage the expeditions, to manage the Southern Reach, even, one suspects, to manage reality itself ("[she] has been operated on, reconditioned, broken down, brainwashed, fed false information that runs counter to her own safety, built back up again...") Control's family and their links to Area X are explained as is the role of the "Seance & Science Brigade", even, at one level, the nature of Area X itself. We learn enough to close the narrative as a story, if that's waht we want to do. 

But on another level, these books aren't - at least I don't think they are - so much about "what happens" that as about the challenge of Area X. 

 Faced with this impossible anomaly, this utterly alien infestation, how do we respond? What do we do? How do we cope with the unstated threat, the uncertainty?  In VanderMeer's trilogy, the guiding hand behind much of the "official" response turns out to be Lowry, portayed almost as an evil genius, with his underground bunker, manipulating, hypnotising, seeking, almost, a way to smuggle a weapon into Area X. he is a spymaster, a planner, a bureaucrat using Cold War tools.  Define the tools, perhaps, and define the threat?  But we saw in Authority how that ended. (Or perhaps not - at the end of this book it's far from clear what really happened).

But there are other responses to Area X. We see Saul's, developing even before Area X's existence. We see that of "the biologist" Annihilation (the account of which I found truly moving). And Control's. In the end, I think they do all - differently - find acceptance (except Lowry, we never learn what becomes of him).  That is the point of the story - not how Area X came about (we find out, but I don't think it is particularly significant).  There is a sense in which the "story", the expeditions, are secondary to this group of characters and their responses.  It is, in the end, all a "long con" - VanderMeer writes of "grifters" and "marks", there is an implication that the Southern Reach, the attempts to understand, contain and control Area X are an elaborate deception - even a self deception - on the part of those involved.

This is a haunting book, a laden book, to be read and thought about. It shouldn't be read quickly and will, I think repay rereading (as would the previous volumes). At first I wished all three had been published together - they are a whole - but I'm now glad they weren't, as for me the tempation to read them in one go would have been too great to resist. And they do need to be read slowly and carefully.

This trilogy and deserves to be recognised as a classic.

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