The Map as Misdirection: An Exploration of the Postmodern and Gothic in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

As far as Vandermeer’s Annihilation goes, this essay will be my final thoughts on the novel.  I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts.  I’m going to continue to edit the essay, as I feel things can always be improved and tweaked, especially after writing an essay in a three-day frenzy.  As might be expected, this essay CONTAINS SPOILERS.  The rest of the essay follows the post-introduction jump.

Best wishes.

Introduction

Trying to categorize Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation proves to be a difficult task, as the novel covers so much space in so much time and still leaves so much uncertain.  Certainly, the novel contains elements of horror, of a certain kind of adventure, and, arguably even of feminism.  To go one further, there is even a sense of post-colonialism as the characters battle for identity just as nature battles for the same in Area X.  Despite these intriguing possibilities, I will here focus on the concept of Annihilation as representing a new kind of gothic novel, one that builds off of postmodernist practices.  Before discussing the how or why of the postmodernist gothic categorization, we have to discuss the what.  By “that what,” I mean, of course, that we must define what it is we’re holding up for consideration when we say the novel is representative of both the gothic and the postmodern, which may be considered part of Vandermeer’s genre, “The New Weird.”  Despite our clear starting point, we inevitably end up lost in the world of Area X at the skilled hands of Vandermeer.

Postmodernism in Annihilation

          In discussing the idea of the postmodern, there is a general idea of what it means for a text to be “postmodern,” but there is little in the way of an official definition.  The Oxford English dictionary discusses typical features of postmodernism as being “references to, or the use of, earlier styles and conventions, a deliberate mixing of different styles and media, often with self-referential or parodic intent, and the incorporation of images relating to consumerism, mass-communication, etc.” (OED).  Still, despite the authority of the Oxford English dictionary, the OED definition of “postmodernism” does little for in terms of providing a set of characteristics useful in examining Annihilation.  Certainly, it is plain to see that Annihilation mixes different styles.  Unlike T.S. Eliot’s mixing of high and low culture in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” we see, instead, a different kind of mixing of high and low culture.We can find elements of science fiction, of horror, of the postmodern, and of gothic literature throughout the novel.  The plot of the novel is not dissimilar to many dystopian or science fiction novels, and even the Crawler’s text appears to be written in the style of the Bible.  I’m not sure that there’s much parody present in Annihilation, but the text is certainly self-referential to itself as a document being composed.

To discuss the postmodern further in terms of literary techniques, I’d like to turn to literature website Shmoop to aid in the discussion.  First, Shmoop lists the idea of intertextuality as a characteristic of postmodernism.  Throughout Annihilation, there is much allusion to and discussion of other works.  For example, the Bible figures pretty prominently into the imagery of Area X as initially being something of an Eden.  Of course, the illusion is quickly shattered amidst blood and violence.  The biologist herself draws comparisons between the Crawler’s text and that of the Old Testament.

While not quite intertextuality in the textbook sense, I find myself drawn to comparisons to texts like Milton’s Paradise Lost and Wells texts The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Time Machine., but this is more of a reader-induced intertextuality.  I feel the connection to Paradise Lost comes from the initially Edenic quality of Area X.  Much like the Eden in Milton’s text, the calm is shattered, and just as the apple is enough to corrupt Eve, so the initial burst of spores that the biologist breathes in is enough to begin her change, to give her knowledge of Area X.  As for The Island of Dr. Moreau, it is a comparison that lies in the experimental, animal-human hybrid.  Finally, while The Time Machine may be more of a stretch, there is a certain aesthetic of confusion, of the unknown that Vandermeer is able to adopt for Annihilation.

Secondly, there is the idea of metafiction, which is a literary technique that finds the text being self-referential, pointing itself out as a fictitious creation.  While Annihilation takes itself seriously, the biologist readily admits that she withholds information.  The biologist tells us herself that her journal, which comprises the text that we are reading, is not completely reliable.  More important, as a New York Time Review points out, there is something of a similarity in appearance between the lighthouse keeper and Jeff Vandermeer himself (LeClair).  Since the Crawler has absorbed the lighthouse keeper, Annihilation may be seen as an allegory for the creative process.  Area X could potentially be a place of the author’s imagination slowly encroaching upon the fictitious “outside world,” an idea not unlike Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper in which the characters of the novel wage a war against Plascencia himself.   The dual metafictional nature of Annihilation can be unwieldy, but, if looking for it, it can be found.

A pastiche is defined as “a novel, poem, painting, etc., incorporating several different styles, or made up of parts drawn from a variety of sources (OED).  In Annihilation, we see the collage effect in the elements of horror, suspense, gothic literature (yet to be discussed), science fiction, and postmodern included in the novel.  Yet another characteristic of the postmodern, a pastiche draws from other genres and conventions to create something new, hence the comparisons drawn between Annihilation  and previous works like The Island of Dr. Moreau and Paradise Lost are not necessarily incorrect but, instead, hint at the shared literary heritage of the texts.

Fragmentation and paranoia are massive concepts in Annihilation.  As the biologist continues on her journey through Area X and is increasing affected by what’s referred to as the “brightness,” her thinking shifts radically.  Her paranoia is not unfounded as all sorts of creatures and hazards lay scattered throughout Area X.  Still, the biologist comes up with all kinds of theories as to just what is going on, and her paranoia infects the reader enough to lead him or her down all kinds of roads. Fragmentation refers, simply, to the breaking up of the story in various ways.  The fact that the narrator is incredibly unreliable and shifts between the present and the past adds to the idea of fragmentation as the reader is always on uncertain footing.  Interestingly enough, the style of prose features little in the way of fragmentation, as much of the fragmentation resides not only in the manner in which the story is told plot-wise, but in the chaos of Area X itself.  In a way, though, the text of the Crawler is dispersed throughout the text, unmistakably representing a type of fragmentation.

Though other characteristics of postmodernism exist (minimalism, maximalism, irony, black comedy), not all are readily found in Annihilation.  Still, the last characteristic of postmodernism to explore in relation to Annihilation, and perhaps most complicated to initially grasp, is the idea of hyperreality.  Baudrillard describes hyperreality as the reduplication of reality through different means, ultimately resulting in a dissipated reality (144).   In other words, the hyperreality is a simulation of reality that is so detailed and so realistic that no seams between the two can be found.  The psychologist alludes to the members of the expedition having an altered view, offering to lift the view so that the biologist can see, but the biologist declines.  Later on in the novel, the biologist wonders about the true nature of what is around her, a recognition of the possibility that what she sees is only a simulation of reality and not reality itself. Finally, in an odd way (that may be a bit of a stretch per the definition of the hyperreal), the reader is brought into this idea of the hyperreal, having spent over a hundred pages reading what may assumed to be a factual account only to be confronted with the reality that what he or she has been told is only a representation of the truth.

The Presence of the Gothic

            Writing about the Gothic element present in early Russian realist literature, Katherine Bowers writes that “…beyond the gothic’s hauntings and mysteries, … several key characteristics emerge as definitive for the genre: (1) the text must focus on the solution of a mystery: the reader is propelled to continue reading out of curiosity, anticipating horrors or terrors that are hinted at but constantly deferred; (2) the text must refer to some kind of transgression or broken taboo, the exploration of the repercussions of which informs the work as a whole; and, finally, (3) the text is preoccupied with the depiction and/or evocation of emotions such as fear, anxiety, and revulsion, and these psychologies both inform the text and attempt to evoke a strong emotional reaction from the reader (Bowers).  Put in a rather simplistic manner, Bowers claims that definitive gothic characteristics are a mystery around which the text revolves, a mistake, and the presence of emotions such as fear and anxiety.  Furthermore, other elements often present in Gothic literature not referred to by Bowers include a castle (or another old structure in rather poor condition) and a fallen hero who typically becomes isolated (“The Gothic Novel”).

The mystery central to Annihilation is not just a singular mystery.  Vandermeer leaves the reader in the dark regarding much of the backstory of the novel.  Of course, the reader is limited by the first person narrator, the biologist, who proves to be unreliable, but the narrator herself is also limited in her knowledge of Area X and the events that occur and have occurred.  The mysteries present include everything from the even that causes Area X to become what it is, the true intent of the psychologist and Southern Reach, the biologist’s reasoning for joining the expedition, and the fates of the previous expeditions.  As the novel goes on, further mysteries only pile on, and though some mysteries are solved, the novel ends on a note of ambiguity with several mysteries left unsolved, at least as far as the reader knows.

While the broken taboo or transgression is initially not as clear in the beginning of the novel, there is still the return of the biologist’s husband following an ill-fated expedition, and the biologist joins the expedition in an attempt to learn of what truly happened to her husband to cause him to return in such an altered state. While the biologist’s decision to join the expedition is not necessarily a transgression, her inhaling of spores without notifying the rest of the members of her party is an initial transgression that has consequences that resonate through the novel, ultimately giving the biologist an odd advantage in the “brightness,” which she uses to commit yet another transgression—the murder of the surveyor.  Interestingly,  the biologist seems to have little regret about the death of the surveyor, and the biologist’s transition over the course of the novel leads into the idea of the “fallen protagonist,” as she is fundamentally changed by the “brightness.”  Ultimately, the biologist decides to not return to the border.  Instead, the biologist plans to move further into Area X in an attempt to learn more of what occurs beyond the border.

Annihilation is filled with feelings of paranoia and anxiety.  Area X itself is a formerly human-occupied area (ruins—ring a gothic bell?) with a rather strange, almost Edenic feel.  Aside from the many ruins and human-shaped plant growths in the destroyed homes, the macabre scene in the lighthouse has the reader preparing for a grisly find that ultimately never comes.  The biologist’s paranoia grows throughout the novel, as does the tension the reader feels with the increasing number of mysteries.  While the biologist initially fears descending into the tower, she ultimately realizes she must confront the Crawler, and even though she is more secure in the “brightness,” her fear is still present, culminating in intense pain experienced at the hands of the Crawler.  Even if the narrator feels calmer and prepared, the reader still fears for her after having seen what the Crawler is capable of, as well as witnessing or hearing of the ill-fates of the surveyor, psychologist, anthropologist, and 11 prior expeditions.  In having the biologist become calmer, Vandermeer cleverly plays with conventions—the biologist becomes calmer while the reader becomes only more anxious.

As discussed, Area X is filled with ruins of various kinds.  A village lies torn to shreds, partially submerged in swamps and lakes.  The tower is an odd stone structure that is drenched in darkness and foreboding, almost-Biblical sounding text written in fungus.  The lighthouse is home to the remnants of a bloodbath covered in dust and a secret trap filled with hundreds of journals from previous expedition members.  The novel also includes a terrifying walk through the night during which the narrator nearly comes face to face with a molting humanoid mutation inclined to plaintively howl in the night.  Finally, the healthy biologist becomes infected with the “brightness” after breathing in the spores from the Crawler’s writings, ultimately leading to a transformation that concludes, amongst other things, with the murder of the surveyor.  While the biologist does not represent a traditional fallen woman, her transformation is still a fall of sorts when compared to typical norms of society.

The setting of many gothic novels often becomes a kind of character in the novel through characterization, interaction with the protagonist, and some kind of shift.  In Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, for example, the house constantly changes its interior size and shape, seemingly at will, and often to the detriment of the characters present inside its ever-shifting walls.  The main protagonist, Will Navidson, becomes obsessed with the home, ultimately determining the course of his life as well as the lives of several of his friends and family members.  In another, traditionally more gothic stories, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is driven insane by the room she is confined to, constantly seeing different shapes and figures in the wallpaper.  In Annihilation, much like in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the character are not simply shaped by the setting. Instead, the characters interact with the setting itself.  As described, Will Navidson becomes obsessed with the home, ultimately focused on fighting it.  The biologist in Annihilation not only is infected and transformed by the spores, but she interacts with Nature itself in the form of the Crawler and various other creatures present in Area X.  An early journal even recounts the building of outer walls around the light house to help repel the sea.

A final concept of gothic literature is the unheimlich, otherwise known as the uncanny.  The unheimlich represents something of a known unknown.  A particularly interesting example of the uncanny is the appearance of the doppelgängers, the “copies” of the 11th expedition that slowly enter the tower in a trance-like state, as described by the biologist’s husband.  The characters are not the only ones who experience the uncanny, however.  While the reader learns about the characters through both characterization and what the biologist writes, there is still much unknown about them.  The landscape itself is filled with familiar landscape characteristics and structures, and the story itself is filled with familiar tropes of sci-fi and horror literature, yet Area X is home to something dark and unknown, ultimately creating an incredible amount of suspense, an anxious reading experience, and a palpable state of anxiety the reader may come to intensely experience.

Conclusion

            Annihilation is many things: a postmodern novel, a gothic experience,  a novel about Nature’s reclamation of nature, and a novel about the process of writing itself.  The landscape is gradually consumed by nature, and the biologist is taken over by the spores and gradually consumed to a greater and greater degree, just as a writer “inhales” an initial idea and cannot help but to write and write to completion of a work.  While critics may dismiss Annihilation as nothing but a rehashing of familiar stories, ideas, and plots, they are missing out on Vandermeer’s twisting of conventions through which he presents the entire world of Area X and the Southern Reach Trilogy as existing in a perpetual state of uncanniness.  The biologist comments that “The map had been the first form of misdirection,” and it is clear that she is speaking about the map in front of her as well as the “map” crafted by the crushed connotations created novel itself.  Vandermeer’s skill with tension and anxiety is masterful, and his combination of several genres and conventions is certainly representative of a genre worthy of the title “The New Weird.”

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Trans. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1988. Print.

Bowers, Katherine. “The City Through Glass, Darkly: Use of Gothic in Early Russian Realism.” The Modern Language Review 180.4 (2013): Web.

“The Gothic Novel.” The Gothic Novel. UC Davis, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.

Kingsepp, E. “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War   II Digital Games.” Games and Culture 2.4 (2007): 366-75. Web.

Leclair, Tom. “Futuristic Thrillers.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.

“pastiche, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 1 April 2015.

“postmodernism, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 16 October 2014.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Postmodern Literature Characteristics.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

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