OK I just broke a rule and read a book and it got me bad. Because it’s really good. And now I’m at least half a day behind on my own planned page-count and though I’d like to pretend to myself, as ever, that my dog ate my homework, this time it wasn’t him. It was Jeff VanderMeer. Honest.
I try not to read fiction when I’m doing a first draft of my own. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly I seem to write in a kind of fugue state, not entirely sure where everything’s coming from (while of course remaining broadly certain about the ultimate destination, editors please note…). Because I’m not really editing where everything is coming from at this stage, I always worry that my lazy-brain will reach out for whatever last went in it and just regurgitate someone else’s world or words with a thin and unconvincing gloss of my own. I once wrote a very, very funny and extremely clever opening to a chapter, really genius level satire, only to realize, at the edit that not only was it indeed a work of genius, but the genius in question was called Terry Pratchett and not me, because I’d been brightening up my evenings with bedtime trips to Discworld while writing. So that’s one reason I have a rule about not reading fiction while writing fiction.
The other is even more basic, which is that when I’m writing first drafts I do it in what another writer friend of mine characterizes as “essay crisis” mode, a sad reflection of how the child is father to the man, or in her case woman, and that bad habits learned in school or university do tend to stick around. Essay crisis mode means full-contact no-distraction waste-no-available minute engagement with the job in hand. So, no wandering off into someone else’s dreamland for some light diversion, or in this specific case, I shouldn’t have wandered into Area X in Jeff VanderMeer’s rather wonderful book Annihilation.
My excuse is that I was tired after the book-launch for The Oversight in London, and travelling back on the train, and though I’m normally a great lover of writing on the East Coast Mainline (four hours and twenty minutes of distraction-free concentration, aided by patchy phone coverage and truly and reliably dreadful on-board wi-fi that even the conductors warn you off paying for) I thought I might just snooze all the way home. So I fired up the Kindle and thought there could be little harm in dozing off to a little light reading.
Fat chance. It’s a truly great book. It’s not like anything I’ve read for a long, long time. It’s entirely immersive, weird, muscular and haunting. It drags you into its world and stays with you way beyond the final page. The handling of voice is pitch perfect. In that it tells the story of an expedition into a quarantined “forbidden zone” in which all normal-flavoured bets are off, it shares a lot with the classic Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and consequently it also has a Tarkovsky vibe (since Stalker is based on that earlier book). Those are two incidental big pluses in my case. That said, it’s definitely its own thing, low to the ground, observant of and attentive to nature in the clear-eyed nose-to-frogspawn way a kid sees the world, and it creates its very disturbing strangeness out of that tangible nature and a dream-like perversion of the accepted rules that usually govern it. It’s mysterious both in what it describes and how it does so, with an anonymized and self consciously unreliable narrator who nevertheless rigorously observes the events she is caught up in like the biologist she is.
The plot is the plot and I’m not going to spoiler it here, because experiencing it unfolding is one of the great pleasures of this pungently atmospheric box of tricks. The other tremendously impressive thing that VanderMeer does is build a sense of place that is so specific and tactile that it burrows into your consciousness like a mindworm. He constructs a landscape that you inhabit rather than observe, creating an experience of place that is wholly immersive in the way a good video game haunts your mind with its own architecture and terrain.
It’s the beginning of a trilogy, but it’s a perfectly realised stand-alone too. In some ways I was split, wanting to read what comes next, but also wondering if discovering more would dilute things with too much retrospective explanation. Like a Tarkovsky film, in fact, much of the pleasure lies in the lack of explanation leaving room for the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks. Which has the added effect of making you complicit in the work itself, and thus doubly invested in it. A well-turned trick indeed, and a very pleasurable one, as is reading a writer who treats you like a grown-up. The whole thing has a very mild 1970’s art house vibe to it, if you will, but in a good way. Read it. You’ll be hooked. Let Jeff VanderMeer eat YOUR homework… I’ve got catching up to do.