by Jeff VanderMeer
There are only a few writers currently publishing whose books I buy as soon as they come out. Of those, Jeff VanderMeer undoubtedly does the best job of building up anticipation among his readers, thanks to his generous use of social media. (It's a good thing for Thomas Pynchon he is famous - otherwise no one except his wife and his editor would notice when his books dropped.) VanderMeer has been talking about his Southern Reach trilogy on Facebook, etc. for what seems like decades now, although of course reader years are like dog years, and now the first volume, Annihilation, is finally available.
VanderMeer is a writer of speculative fiction - certainly on the fantasy rather than the science fiction end of things - but this book edges farther into horror territory. It's the story of an expedition into Area X, an area that has been sealed off from the general public for an unknown period of years. This expedition, consisting of four women, is to go in, explore, and record what they find. What they find is a seemingly flourishing natural area with a few disturbing oddities.
By the end of the novel, we only know a very little more about Area X than we did at the beginning. This would prove deeply unsatisfying in most novels, making me suspicious the writer couldn't actually decide what was going on. It would work in a short story, and it works here, where we know there are two more volumes to come.
The story is told by one of the expedition members, a biologist whose innate reluctance to share personal details fits well with the mission's spare ethos. Team members, for example, know each other by title rather than name, and their lives prior to joining the expedition are not discussed.* We come to know more about the biologist over the course of the book. We also know more about Area X, but it becomes evident just how little that is.
Luckily for impatient readers, all three books are already completed; the second volume, Authority, comes out in May. Oh, and if you don't usually buy books right away because of the price of hardcover books, the trilogy is in paperback from the get-go.
* VanderMeer has said in a couple of interviews that there is no physical description of the characters in the book. Strictly speaking, this is not entirely true; the lighthouse keeper (who may or may not be a character) is described only in the briefest of ways when the narrator sees his photo, and one member of the exploration team has her hair pulled back, which tells us (a) she has hair and (b) that it is long enough to be pulled back. That these two exceptions stand out so strongly, though, only reinforces the general truth of his statement.
But this leads me to wonder in a more general way about what constitutes physical description. We know the characters are human women, which tells us they don't look like panda bears or magpies. Our narrator walks, which means she isn't in a wheelchair, and she does things with her arms, so she isn't missing any limbs. She wears clothes. That's not a lot to go on; she could be black or white, tall or short, elegant or awkward. But we know we aren't reading about a be-tentacled being at the Alpha Centauri Naturist Resort.
One way to describe a character is to be very obvious about it: "Bea looked in the mirror and saw a 5-foot-four slender brunette with a 34C chest and shapely buttocks." Better writers drop clues along the way - "Bea asked Biff to get the sugar down from the top shelf" tells us that Bea is on the short side. But to do the reverse, to tell us nothing about the characters at all, is nearly an impossible task. If you have them move about a room, what verb can you used other than "walked" (unless the character is a slithering slug, or in a wheelchair, or pure energy)? You can get cagey and use "moved," but the reader sees that as an obfuscation, as a withholding of information.
Which is all to say, "no physical description" is an asymptote a writer can approach but never quite reach.