Jeff Vandermeer’s “Annihilation”: What is Area-X?

Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation: Book One of the Sourthern Reach Trilogy

My favourite way to experience a story is without reading the synopsis, to have somebody hand me a book and just dive right in, no expectations. I feel like my reaction is more honest that way. When I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, I had already forgotten what it was about and decided to avoid the synopsis on the back at all costs, thus giving myself the chance to review the book based on nothing but my own interpretations of it. I knew it was sci-fi. I knew the author has won fantasy awards. I knew I liked the sound of it. That should have been good enough to get on with, right?

That didn’t work.

By the third chapter, it was no longer a case of wanting to read the back but needing to. I had no idea what the hell was going on. I had the vaguest sense that the story was set in an off-limits zone of some continent, that a group of people were there on government orders, and that the place had a weird, alien vibe. Beyond that, truly, I had no idea.

The description on the back did little to answer my questions. It was like reading a synopsis of one book, then cracking open the prequel. The whole story is set in ‘Area-X’, the aforementioned off-limits zone. I’ve now finished the book and I still don’t know what that is or means. I gather that it’s been unpopulated for X amount of years and that nature has since “reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization.” There are metaphors all wrapped up in each other and flashback scenes popping out of nowhere, seemingly just to fill space or explain some random new particularity that may or may not be important to the overall plot. There are also organisms that live in Area-X, organisms that apparently merit little to no substantial description. I don’t know if they’re animals, aliens, bugs, people, or spiritual beings made of dust and happy thoughts.

The main player in this game of What The Hell Are We is nicknamed ‘The Crawler’. It comes into the story again and again, and every time, a little bit more about it is revealed. And every time, I’m still left feeling like Vandermeer wrote out a paragraph, scrambled the sentences, and put it all back together willy-nilly. From what I understand, it’s a giant slug made of light. But also, it might not exist.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fantasy kid at heart. I love leaving imagery up to the imagination when detailed descriptions just are not going to cut it. A little ambiguity never hurt anybody! Unfortunately, it’s not so much ambiguous in this case as it is cryptic and perplexing. The ‘organisms’ (I toyed with calling them characters, but the truth is I don’t know what the term is here) are like half-formed ideas that the author started writing down before getting another thought so exhilarating, he just had to jot it down right there in the middle.

Basically, reading Annihilation was like having somebody describe their dream to you right after they woke up, when it’s still fresh in their mind and their mind is still half-asleep. You nod and try to follow as they sputter sporadic details about how their mother turned into Dr. Phil who turned into you and then into a monkey who ate its tail. They go on about flashes of bright darkness and revolving escalators, and it all makes sense to them, but the dream gets seriously hazy and untranslatable from their mind to yours. I felt mostly like I was trying to decode messages hidden by the author – constantly re-reading paragraphs or jumping back three chapters to see if I’d missed some important detail that might make this all make sense. It just did not make sense.

I really wanted to like this book. I still have hopes for the trilogy – call me crazy, but I think it’s got potential. Area-X, uninhabited by humans, taken over by nature, overrun by… organisms. If the second and third books are a little more revealing, this could be a great story. I think.

Basically, my opinion of this book hangs by the barest of threads on the outcome of the second. If things aren’t explained a little better (for example, maybe revealing the setting, plot, or characters would be a good start), then I’m afraid to say that this was probably just a waste of time. A confusing, muddled, waste of time.