What can I say? A lot, actually.
Please see earlier posts for my “reading journal” as I read Annihilation. It was a lot of fun to make predictions and take guesses as I went along. I’d love to hear if any of your thoughts or predictions lined up with mine. Of course, it contains spoilers, so definitely read the novel first before venturing into those posts.
Annihilation starts us off as an expedition begins into the mysterious Area X. The narrator, known only as the biologist, is part of a team of five professionals who comprise the 12th expedition, the rest either never reappearing or appearing again in odd states of consciousness. Their equipment is antiquated, and their only modern piece of equipment is a black rectangle with a circle in the middle that is supposed to glow red in a time of danger. Their intel is sorely lacking. The psychologist who leads them appears shifty, and they lose one member before they even enter Area X. They know the area is dangerous, but they have no idea what awaits them. Needless to say, little time elapses before things begin to get odd, and reality begins to shift from both within and without as the novel progresses.
I can’t say enough good things about Vandermeer’s skill in pacing. I honestly haven’t been this sucked into a novel in quite a long time. I really enjoyed Nicole Krauss’ Man Walks Into a Room, but before that…no idea. Things are never what they seem, and even when you think you might be on to something, Vandermeer has the foothold slip. You’re left hanging on, but then you have to alter your interpretations and your thoughts, grasping for another foothold to try again. Really, just incredible skill.
Some may find Vandermeer’s lack of clarity to be off-putting or just plain annoying, but the unreliable narrator is an integral part of the story. The biologist is feeding us the incorrect information that she herself was given. She even notes at several points that she changed the facts or withheld information. Who’s fault is it? While I suppose it can be frustrating for the reader, the unreliable nature of nearly everything in the text created a sense of paranoia in me, and I couldn’t help but poke and probe at every thought I had about the novel. I think it’s a large part of the fun of Annihilation.
Vandermeer’s prose really helps set the scene, and he’s able to turn up the eerie factor at will. The 200 pages of the novel feel like effortless, suspenseful reading, and Vandermeer writes skillfully, speeding up the prose and slowing us down to observe when necessary.
While I saw some reviews argue about the placement of the flashbacks, Vandermeer does a great job of bringing them in. We learn a bit more about the biologist and her life, but we also experience an increase in suspense through wanting to return to the present. Still, the unreliable nature is heightened. We approach the biologist, but we’re allowed only a partial view of her internal world, and even that is heavily altered. The world of the Southern Reach trilogy is always outside of our grasp, yet always appears within reach to have us racing for more.
Vandermeer writes, “Some questions will kill you if you’re denied the answer long enough.” He brings us to the brink of death and then resurrects us as if we’re a collective Lazarus. Damn, he’s good.