The OF Blog: Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance

Writing, for me, is like trying to restart an engine that has rested for years, silent and rusting, in an empty lot – choked with water and dirt, infiltrated by ants and spiders and cockroaches.  Vines and weeds shoved into it and spouting out of it.  A kind of coughing sputter, an eruption of leaves and dust, a voice that sounds a little like mine but is not the same as it was before; I use my actual voice rarely enough.

A great deal of time has passed since I placed words on paper, and for so long I felt no urge to do so again.  I have felt more acutely than ever that here on the island I should never be taken out of the moment.  To be taken out of the moment is dangerous – that is when things sneak their way in and then there is no present moment to return to. (from the beginning to Part II)

It has been a short, strange reading trip this year.  Over the course of eight months, all three volumes of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy have been released.  Each book has acted like an act in a larger narrative.  The creepiness inherent in humans invading a now-unreal nature gave way to clandestine agencies and territorial turfs battles.  Now in the concluding volume, Acceptance, the themes of the first two books, Annihilation and Authority, give way to a story that builds upon both while blazing its own path.

Acceptance is more in the narrative mode of Annihilation than Authority, at least in terms of its dependance upon establishing scene and mood in order to draw in the reader.  Passages such as the one quoted above capture well much of the thrust of this book.  Acceptance is a reflective book, one in which the characters' previous experiences help shape perceptions of what is unfolding around them in mysterious, dangerous Area X.  As Control and the mysterious returnee he has renamed Ghost Bird proceed into Area X, they encounter things that bring back memories of lives past, if not necessarily of lives lost.

The narrative alternates between a few PoVs, some of which are situated before the development of Area X thirty years prior to the events of Annihilation.  The reader learns more about the organizations involved in the area during this time and just how this region began to transform around the region of an old lighthouse.  In less skillful hands, this information could have clogged the narrative flow, weighting it down with its misleading importance.  VanderMeer, however, manages to walk the tightrope between explaining too much and leaving too little understood for the reader.  There are answers revealed, yes, but in a setting where the characters themselves barely understand what has transpired, there are plenty of mysteries that just cannot ever be explained.

The plot, intriguing as it is, is actually a minor part of the book.  It is good, gripping psychological storytelling, but in reading it, I was more drawn toward other, even more effective elements.  VanderMeer is an excellent craftsman; his descriptions rarely fail to ring true and the prose is carefully crafted to suit scene and character.  Sometimes this can lead to a hollow, too-perfect prose that feels somewhat empty of that mess we call humanity.  However, in this series and most especially in Acceptance, he manages to not only write eloquently and with purpose, but these passages and characters feel more alive, more akin to people on the verge of "an experience."  This is a very tricky thing to pull off, this sense of humans approaching the Sublime, yet VanderMeer manages to pull it off with aplomb.

In my earlier reviews of Annihilation and Authority, I focused on the traditional types of conflict (human vs. nature, human vs. self/society) present within them.  In the concluding volume, Acceptance, there are reverberations of these conflicts, but yet there is a quality to the story that makes it less about conflict, but about interaction and adaptation; acceptance, in other words.  It is in these forms of "acceptance" that we see Control, Ghost Bird, and others in new lights.  We also come to understand, imperfectly as humans are wont to be, just what might be lurking behind Area X.  Some messages are as simple and as complex as a leaf, a twig, a rabbit, and an owl.  And this, this is what makes Acceptance such a fitting conclusion to one of the best trilogies I have read in years.


srs said...

... best trilogy...

Thanks for these reviews. I'm avoiding doing more than skimming them because I want to read them soon - I haven't read any VanderMeer yet.

I have a question about your comment at the end about it it being one of the best trilogies you had read recently - quality wise how does it compare w/Grossman's recently completed Magicians trilogy?

Lsrry said...

I liked Grossman's quite a bit, but the stories/styles differ from VanderMeer's. I think Jeff's writing is stronger from a voice perspective, while Grossman does a great job in developing a character over a 12 year span of fictional time. It's more of an apple/oranges comparison. I liked both a whole lot, but I prefer VanderMeer's story just a little bit more due to my reading preferences. But do go out and sample both if you get the chance.

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