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When I tell you that my favorite book is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it tells you that I enjoy a story full of mysteries, menacing weirdness, and compelling characters.
When I tell you that Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is the best new book I read in 2014, it should tell you something similar.
Mr. Vandermeer is no stranger to the weird: he and his wife, Ann, edited the appropriately titled fiction anthology The Weird: a collection of bizarre stories that practically constitute a genre of their own.
I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t know about Mr. Vandermeer or his body of work until I happened upon afeature about Annihilation on Wired.com. It’s all about how a significant portion of the book was written while in the throes of intense fever dreams, which accounts for quite a bit of the weirdness throughout the novel’s relatively svelte 208 pages. In fact, Vandermeer even claims that he’s “superstitious” about changing any of the details that came to him in the dream, as though it’s something that he not so muchcame up with as tapped into.
So what is Annihilation all about, anyway? It takes place in a version of our world where a significant portion of the Gulf coast has been seized and isolated by some kind of presence. Whether this presence is terrestrial or otherwise remains to be seen, though much of its influence feels distinctly otherworldly.
Dubbed Area X, this area has been all but impenetrable for several decades. The only way through the area’s invisible border is a small opening through which 11 expeditions have launched, each of which have sought to unravel the mysteries of Area X, and each of which have met with various degrees of mystery, tragedy, or both.
We pick up the story with the 12th expedition, which is comprised of four nameless female scientists, and their attempts to understand the bizarrely “pristine” and “nearly Edenic” landscape (as though the presence in Area X has a fetish for proper lawn care), as well as to come to terms with more than one unexplainable phenomena they encounter during their journey. The story is told from the point of view of the expedition’s biologist, who has a very personal reason for seeking the truth about Area X.
I mentioned House of Leaves above because it’s the closest thing I’ve ever read to Mr. Vandermeer’sAnnihilation, the first of his Southern Reach trilogy. Both books are full with practically overwhelming dread and the sense that you’re brushing shoulders with something immense and unknowable. Like the “15 minute hallway” in House of Leaves, there’s plenty of topographical oddities in Annihilation, including another eerie spiral staircase leading to heretofore unexplored depths.
This is indeed a fever dream of a novel, and one what shouldn’t be missed.
Of note is the fact that, according to Deadline, the film rights for the Southern Reach trilogy have already been optioned (the third book isn’t due out until September). Paramount Pictures and Scott Rudin Productions acquired the rights within hours of their being put up for auction, and the first film in the trilogy is expected to arrive early in 2015.
Frankly, I couldn’t be more excited. A great deal of the book’s power comes from the sense of both awe and dread, made more potent by the fact that so little is really explained to us; Vandermeer understands better than most how much more terrifying things can be when the imagination is left to do its work. This, coupled with the inherent unreliability of the narrator, has produced a book that some would probably be quick to call “unfilmable.” I’m confident, however, that in the right hands, these films could be something really special.
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