1 A 3 O R N

The Southern Reach Trilogy

by Jeff Vandermeer

Created: 2021-06-05
Wordcount: 0.9k

I've read Jeff Vandermeer's The Southern Reach Trilogy at least 2.5x times. You'd think that means I like it. Alas, that is not so.

I like parts of it very much. Specifically, I enjoy particular sentences and particular paragraphs. The copy of the trilogy I own is heavily underlined.

The book is at its best when describing things, even or particularly when describing mundane rather than other-worldly things. Here is the narrator of the first book describing her parents:

My mother was an overwrought artist who achieved some success, but who was a little too fond of alcohol and always struggled to find new clients, while my dad the underemployed account specialized in schemes to get rich quick that usually brought in nothing. Neither of them seemed to possess the ability to focus on one thing for any length of time. Sometimes it felt as if I had been placed with a family, rather than born into one.

It gives a picture of the family, of the narrator, of the whole situation, all in one and all at once.

Or, in the second book, another description of familial lack-of-bliss from the narrator Control:

His father had moved to be with her, and they had Control, and then only a year or two later she was reassigned, from a desk job to active duty in the field, and that was the start of the end of it, the story that anchored Control as a kid soon revealed as just a brief moment set against a landscape of unhappiness. Not unique: the kind of depressingly familiar painting you'd find in a seaside antique store.... Her absences tore at his father, and by the time Control was ten that was the subtext, and sometimes the transcript of their dispute.

Pictures of familial discord aside, I love miscellaneous depictions of moods and emotions. Control, thinking of his experience in conspiracy theories, considers those who create "glue stick by glue stick and thumbtack by thumbtack their own single-use universes." Or about how it feels to try to contribute to a long-ancient and tired conversation.

Every off-the-cuff comment Control made came, or so he thought, with a built-in echo, as if the past banal observations of visitors and new employees lingered in their air, seeking to merge, same with same, and finding an exact match far too often.

Or, with a more uncomfortable echo of C.S. Lewis' Inner Circle.

But it had seemed to Control like the companionable silence of shared experience, as if he had been initiated into membership in an exclusive club without having been asked first. He was wary of that feeling; it was a space where shadows crept in that shouldn't creep in, where people agreed to things they did not actually agree with, believing they were of one purpose and intent.

So, the descriptions I like. I have underlined numerous lines, from which the above are taken essentially randomly.

It is the larger-scale things, and the epistemological things, with which I take issue.

The problem is that The Southern Reach is meant to be about mystery. It's meant to be about the numinous of Lewis, the incomprehensible of Lovecraft, the Beyond of numerous writers. To create a compelling artistic depiction of this, though, you need to maintain the illusion, paradoxically, that the author knows what they are talking about, in some sense. The artistic depiction of the incomprehensible requires creating the feeling that the author, at least, has comprehended it. Or that they at least are constrained in some way by what they write.

It's clear why this would be the case. Anyone can put a word-salad down, saying that such a thing is impossible to describe. But this feels cheap. To make the reader believe that there is truly something out there which overawes and defies comprehension, you need to provide information that convinces the reader that if they were smarter they could comprehend, but as it is, they cannot.

The first book in the trilogy nearly accomplishes this. But it fails in places. You begin to suspect, with some lines, that the reason for the incomprehensibility of the experience is the ineptness of the characters rather than something about the experience. Consider the following lines:

We had also been ordered not to share our journal entries with one another. Too much shared information could skew our observations, our superior's believed. But I knew from experience how hopeless this pursuit, this attempt to weed out bias, was. Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective -- even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.

Granting that nothing is absolutely objective; nevertheless some things come to a far closer approximation of objectivity than other things. No material is immutably durable; but it's better to make bridges of steel than of plastic.

Lots of parts of the book strike me like this.

The other reason that, as you read the trilogy, you increasingly feel that the author is making it up as they go along, is because of the way the plot expands.

The first book deals with a biologist within Area X. The second book deals with a government functionary trying to handle the disaster of the organization that sent the biologist. And the third book expands on the history of other characters, and the history of Area X itself. For more plot, the author has to add extra layers, rather than diving into the mystery that is already there. We learn about the background of the mysterious Crawler in Area X; we learn nothing about the Crawler itself. There's no necessity to the layers. They just feel like they came from the need for more plot. You don't go deeper, you go broader and shallower.

So, that, I think, is why I dislike the Southern Reach trilogy, try as I might to like it.