Notes on Jeff VanderMeer’s “Authority” (2014).

So I was going to write something like “Unlike sandwiches, the middle part of a trilogy isn’t usually where the good stuff is; it doesn’t have the excitement of the setup of Part 1, nor the fireworks of Part 3,” but then I remembered how the whole Cuba section of The Godfather trilogy was in the second movie, and how the Battle of Helm’s Deep was also in the second Lord of the Rings movie/book, so I left the sentence alone. But Authority, the second part of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, is even better than its thrilling predecessor, Annihilation. Actually, “even better” is an understatement; I think I was planning to start this little blurb by writing “HOLY MOLEY” and decided against that too. Writing is iterative; what can I say.

I’m going to end up relying on a whole slew of lazy comparisons, as above, for the Southern Reach trilogy, not just out of sloth, but because VanderMeer, I think, is consciously employing various pop culture tropes to trace the outline of the trilogy’s central enigma. “Something” happened, but the precise nature of that happening — its dimensions, its parameters, its implications — aren’t fully revealed to the reader nor to its protagonists, and the reader, as part of the reading experience, pulls different possibilities together to try to make them fit. Is it the fungi from Yuggoth? The glass barrier from Under the Dome? That evil kudzu from The Ruins? A government experiment gone horribly wrong? In Authority, both aliens and multiverses are discussed offhandedly by the characters themselves — hey, I was wondering about those possibilities too — and the fact that their explanatory power seems so weak only deepens the mystery.

It seemed to me that Annihilation, on the surface, took its cues most directly from Lost: people with hidden agendas roughing it in nature (or is it Nature, with a capital N? “Nature” in scare quotes?); a sense of temporal and spatial dislocation; a shadowy Dharma Initiative-like organization; something, neither fish nor fowl, lurking in the woods; even a hole in the ground. But one significant difference is that sense of unease, a peculiarly terrestrial dread, all throughout, and it’s testament to VanderMeer’s powers that the reader, too, is unsettled by what the protagonist comes to know, and what she realizes she doesn’t know.

Authority is a different beast altogether, because this dread is evoked in a more, shall we say, existential fashion. The explorations of Area X from Annihilation are paralleled in the middle novel by a similar journey through familiar though arguably more disorienting terrain: the offices of the Southern Reach. VanderMeer weaves together an indelible portrait of bureaucracy — not the dystopian chaos of Brazil, but a terrifyingly banal wasteland of desks and hallways, and the modern discomforts of cafeterias and parking lots. (There is, for instance, a scene in a storage closet that’s both hilarious and genuinely creepy at the same time.) The fauna inhabiting Area X, it seems, are no odder than the Southern Reach characters themselves, who are as deliberately flat — and therefore uncanny — as the members of Annilhilation’s expedition. The offices are supposedly inhabited by employees, but in some respect the building is as abandoned as the lighthouse in Authority: both places as dead archives.

In this respect Authority’s pace is closer to the patient interrogation and parrying of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Authority’s protagonist is nicknamed, helpfully, Control, but his character is defined by how weakly he gets to wield it. In this respect he’s closer to the George Smiley character minus the sitting rooms and cups of tea, slowly uncovering the layers of sediment like an archaeologist to reveal some buried truth.

VanderMeer has a sharp eye for the minute negotiations and compromises of office politics, and how they’re played out in seemingly innocuous conversations. VanderMeer’s concerns from the first book, with ordinary language, with what words mean — with borders and barriers, intrusions and protrusions (tunnel or tower?) — and the afterlife of words come into sharper play here.

There’s a similar care and perceptiveness in how VanderMeer depicts interior lives. For a genre that has been characterized as more narrative-driven, both Annihilation and Authority spend a lot of time exploring psychological topographies, mapping out the emotional contours of his protagonists. And if all this sounds like a slog — like, why did VanderMeer apparently choose to grind the cliffhanger narrative to a halt? — I can assure you that the slowness, like a vine curling across a wall, will reward the patient reader.

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