Describing the indescribable with Jeff Vandermeer
Book designer Peter Mendelsund interviews the author of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—a trilogy now collected in a single volume as Area X
I took Annihilation from my wife. I discovered she was reading it while we were on vacation last spring, and, it wasn’t so much the book that caught my attention as much as the effect it had on her. She was stealing moments to read it, drifting out of conversations; excited; distracted. Though she reads a lot, I seldom see her this carried away by a novel. I asked her to describe the book—she tells me it is unusual. All the characters are women. They are referred to by profession, rather than by name (“the biologist;” “the anthropologist,” etc.) They are part of an expedition. They collectively find themselves in a place; a zone called Area X. What is this environment like? It’s a habitation for something or other; the site of an unspecified encounter. Pristine. Yet also infected. It’s wide open, like a nature preserve, but strangely claustrophobic. The landscape seems sentient, and it communicates variously, using its own untranslatable semiotics: olfactory; haptic; extra-sensory and perhaps multidimensional. There are animals (of a sort). There are trees, plants (some of which, we later find out, are un-killable.) There is a lighthouse. There is another tower, which is also a tunnel. Upon its inner walls, a crypto-biblical psalm is being written in organic matter. There are piles of moldering journals, diaries. The governing principles of this world (ours?) are neither scientific nor occult. Or perhaps, rather, they are both. I found it fascinating that my wife would find a book which didn’t cleave to obvious narrative patterns, genres, tropes, so compulsively readable. She is an avid reader of nonfiction, and a species of positivist.
Me, I love fiction, the stranger the better, and I’m specifically drawn to books that have no elevator pitch; which are sui generis (these are rare.) So I stole the book. (Before she had finished it.) She went out one afternoon and I picked up Annihilation and began reading it and refused to give it back. She was angry with me for this, and rightly so. I went on to request advance copies of the subsequent books (Authority; Acceptance) from the publishing house. I read them quickly. I had almost finished all three books by the time she finished book one (she bought her own copy). This was last spring. She’s probably still mad at me.
Then, this summer, in what was surely karmic retribution, someone stole all three books from me. (It wasn’t my wife). Someone went into my office at Knopf on the 12th floor of the Random House building, and took the entire Southern Reach Trilogy. I guessed that the thief had purchased the first book in a store like everyone else, but lacked the requisite patience to wait for books two and three. Clearly I wasn’t the only obsessive. The books are infectious; addictive. The books exert their own brand of spooky action at a distance. The books have a way of festering inside you. The books resist definition, yet the questions they raise demand resolution. As a result of this theft, I had to wait until the final book was commercially available, like everyone else, in order to finish the series. Having to wait really sucked. Now, thankfully, the entire trilogy is out. No one needs to steal books anymore.
After reading Annihilation, I crowed about the book on Twitter and was surprised when Jeff replied directly to me. We corresponded for a bit online, and then, this August, when our books (my What We See When We Read, and his Acceptance) were released at about the same time, and we were both on the road flogging our wares, he wrote me to suggest a conversation about our work: about book jackets, the uncanny effect in literature, about world building, design—both graphic design and narrative design. My book’s subject is the reading imagination—so you can understand why I would jump at the opportunity to interrogate an author who is, sure, a talented world-builder, but more importantly an author who is so very good at insinuation; whose project seemed to include adumbrating that which is, by its very nature, incomprehensible. There is so much in Jeff’s books that is manufactured in the reader’s mind through a wonderful mechanics of mystification; through what isn’t said. And this, I suppose is where I’d like to start…
PM: One of things that interested me most in your new trilogy was the way in which you describe the indescribable (Which is a recurrent and essential challenge, it seems to me, of speculative fiction—how does one give a sense of something that is truly alien; that lives beyond the ken of our understanding?) You do a lot of hinting at things (creatures, events) and suggesting the outlines of things, while still managing to invest your books with a palpable sense of reality. Did you intentionally blur, or remove elements from your descriptions? (Is this the only way to describe an encounter with something the mind isn’t built to encompass?)
JV: Thinking of the novels from a compositional standpoint—“composition” as an art term, or even perhaps mise-en-scene from film—it’s the opposite of blurring. For example, the backdrop has to be clear, crisp, well-defined so that whatever moves across it can be in part defined by what it is moving across—and so the reader has an anchor. In this case “backdrop” for purposes of creating the uncanny effect refers to the people in a scene too, so you’re looking at building some scenes that have strong traditional characterization but that at certain points the characters are also subsumed. You invest a lot of effort in getting right the mundane details of place and character. Without those coordinates being precise, the rest of the map doesn’t work. The weird elements will seem out of focus or confusing. This also has to do with use of silence and stillness—you don’t create unnecessary movement in the background or “chatter” that fails to contribute to the destabilizing unease. A lot of writers don’t recognize this—their characters are so full of movement and facial tics and motions, most of it stock, that it’s literally creating self-defeating incidental movement in the reader’s mind.
If you think of it in terms of colors or patterns then, especially in Authority, you’re dealing with wide strips of backdrop that are all one color or at least not creating a distracting filigree. Against that setting, the uncanny can lurch out across the landscape and contaminate the brain in the right way.
The alien elements also must impart some element of coy continuity error, to impinge on the environment so that most readers perceive it in an almost subliminal way. A description that isn’t blurred, but is “off” even as it’s conveyed in precise detail. But it’s just…not quite right. You have a sense of processes going on beneath the skin, behind the walls. Dialogue can even accentuate this idea—in Authority, for example, in the hallways of the Southern Reach stray fragments of speech from Annihilation linger, a kind of displaced residue that the main character can’t identify but the reader can.
The level of specificity depends on the characters, too, though. The biologist will notice things about the natural world that the viewpoint character of Authority would never notice. This is one advantage of fiction over painting: art is subjective in the sense of what to emphasize and what to deemphasize on the canvas, and the “style” is created by the type of paint and the application of the paint through brush strokes. But the subjectivity of fiction is in large part the subjectivity of the character you’re writing about.
…My question for you, which relates to your own question: I very much like how you draw out in What We See When We Read this idea of creation of character by the constraints around them. Which helps to create an outline of the character. It’s more or less how I thought of Control in Authority. Taking this even farther, I think that writers like Karen Joy Fowler do something even weirder where sometimes the absence of text or the cutting of text creates a ghost or resonance that allows the reader to fill in the space. Is there an equivalent effect in art/design? Perhaps it’s something you’ve played around with in your own work. An absence that denotes presence.
PM: “An absence that denotes presence” could be the definition of a good book cover. Good book covers are hard to make, I think, specifically because a designer is asked to deploy the facts of a narrative without showing anything explicit about the setting or characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. Everything is done by implication, proxy, metaphor or analogy.
So what is left off of a jacket is crucial. (I’ve often said that most of my day in the office is spent either suggesting things or hiding things.) I’m not an anti-intentionalist or anything, but I do believe that the reader deserves, to some extent, the right to co-create a fictional world alongside the author. So when you make the author’s world explicit on a cover, you’ve taken something from the reader.
JV: Why do you think so many publishers then do seem to require making the world explicit on the cover? It’s definitely something I’ve pushed back against in the past for my own books and would’ve been a much less effective entry point for the reader on the Southern Reach trilogy.
PM: Publishers love these “explicit” covers so much, which is unfortunate. I think this phenomenon comes down to a bunch of faulty premises, the first of which is the mistaken idea that the reading experience is cinematic, and primarily visual (which I don’t believe.) Then there’s the prejudice that a book is nothing more than the sum of the facts of its narrative. (Obviously wrong.) Then there are many people who wonder how a book jacket that didn’t just regurgitate main plot points is even possible; like “what else is there to show on a jacket?” So in a way, it comes down to a lack of imagination. I come up against this all the time.
The problem always seems worse to me when it comes to books like yours, in which the uncanny is an intrinsic part of the narrative. There are a lot of trite covers for speculative fiction, in general, and I always wonder why books that lie outside of, say, the self-proclaimed “literary mainstream” get such awful, clichéd covers. Maybe it has something to do with this wrongheaded need of ours to pigeonhole a book’s genre.
We end up shoehorning books into these conventional jackets in order to trumpet category: like blood on crime covers and pink on chick lit. It’s a shame. And designers hate to be asked to do this. Though this would be a great time to mention that you’ve been very fortunate in your jackets. I love both the paperback covers for the trilogy …
as well as the new omnibus…
not to mention your amazing foreign market covers you’ve received…
But the fact that you’ve had good covers only underlines more for me the poverty of good covers for Horror, Fantasy, New Weird, Sci Fi, etc. It beggars belief—these are precisely the books that beg for imaginative, original visual treatments. And that isn’t to say that great covers don’t exist for these types of fiction, but you just get the sense that designers who work in these particular mines aren’t really being encouraged to venture into uncharted territory. I suppose I chalk it up to the publisher’s fear of alienating what they imagine is a core audience used to a certain kind of cover. Which is just a vast underestimation of the diversity and intelligence of this very core audience.
JV: Absence versus presence—the type of presence, the type of absence. The reason behind either.
PM: Yes—and to return to your point about creating the “uncanny” effect, it is also crucial when making visual images that whatever effect you decide to highlight—an image, a color, or a piece of text—be given an appropriate backdrop which maintains, as you put it, a certain “stillness.” And I love this idea of a clear, still, stable backdrop giving definition to that which “moves across” it. In Remembrance of Things Past, (it sounds massively pretentious to bring up this example, but it’s the one that came to mind) Proust describes how, as a boy, he watched a magic lantern cast images in his room:
If the lantern was moved I could make out Golo’s horse continuing to advance over the window curtains, swelling out with their folds, descending into their fissures. The body of Golo himself, in its essence as supernatural as that of his steed’s, accommodated every material obstacle–every hindersome object that he encountered by taking it as his skeleton and absorbing it into himself: even the doorknob he immediately adapted to and floated, invincibly over with his red robe or his pale face as noble and as melancholy as ever, but revealing no disturbance and this transvertebration.
The efficacy of Proust’s description of this event, the projected character of “Golo” gliding across the wall, depends upon exactly the process you describe. There are the curtains, and their folds and fissures, the doorknob. These details of the wall being simple, and fixed in advance gives the wall definition and therefore a sense of continuity, which in turn allows the reader to then “see” the image moving across it. (Elaine Scarry discusses this effect in depth in her excellent book on the reading imagination.)
Weirdly Proust’s description of Golo almost reminds me of a floating or swooping creature in Area X; the ribbon-like entity which “stitches” across the sky for instance. When I read the passage in your book that describes that stitching thing, I felt like I could see the “deepening blue” sky so clearly, and that made me see this entity, which I imagine a bit like a sea serpent in a medieval map, where only half the coils are observable above the waves and the rest implied.
Stitching through the sky, in a terrifying way—rippling, diving, rising again, and there came a terrible whispering that pierced not his ears but all of him, as if small particles of something physical had shot through him. He cursed, frozen there, watching, afraid. “The wavery lines that are there and not there.”
The winking in and out of existence is so good—such an effective and novel visual effect. This is one of the truly otherworldly moments in the book.
JV: And yet something like the ribbon thing is conjured up through triangulating real-world details. So: the floating bag in the movie American Beauty “mapped” for the subset of its kinship to the movement of eels underwater, and then that tempered or transformed by memories of strange skies while hiking—which is all then “cooked” and set out as the kind-of answer to the weird equation set out in the video from the first expedition in Authority:
The last fragment of video remained in its own category: “Unassigned.” Everyone was dead by then, except for an injured Lowry, already halfway back to the border.
Yet for a good twenty seconds the camera flew above the glimmering marsh reeds, the deep blue lakes, the ragged white cusp of the sea, toward the lighthouse.
Dipped and rose, fell again and soared again.
With what seemed like a horrifying enthusiasm. An all-consuming joy.
Even though the weird elements in the Southern Reach may be apprehended as ethereal, if you interrogate the actual descriptions, there’s the residue of something tactile. And I do mean residue. Early drafts of that scene had the ribbon things as too eel-like and thus too specific—much like you mentioned that a book cover can be too specific and not leave room for the reader—so I stripped out that description…but the ghost of it remained in elements of the movement. The ghost of a water creature moving through the sky = Uncanny.
All of this would just be a kind of Halloween House trick, a kind of cheap thrill, if it wasn’t wedded to an attempt at conveying the truth that the world is stranger than we recognize, that we understand less of it than our brains trick us into believing. So, if you do it right, the unease that resonates is in part the radiation from the suspicion that we’re not as in control as we think and micro and macro events continue to occur invisible all around us. Quite natural events, of course, but still beyond our ken.
PM: I suppose that if you describe anything real or otherwise, in enough detail, or with the proper detail, with sufficient clarity, that it begins to seem uncanny. Like a housefly under an electron microscope, or a word which you say so many times it begins to sound foreign. This idea of the real (natural) world being “stranger than we recognize” recurs often in these books of yours. One of the most haunting descriptions in the trilogy, for my money, is that of the starfish the biologist encounters in book one. When I read this section I felt a real sense of horror; that description is so visceral. I also had the sense that this episode might be autobiographical. Have you ever had an uncanny episode with a starfish? Further to this point: was the research daunting for these books? Did you undergo a deep immersion in biology; zoology; mycology?
JV: I grew up in Fiji and my earliest memories are of the coastlines of islands and of walking on the beach and encountering fish and whelks and crabs and other animals in that way, and making observations in my diary about them. Two of my three most intense memories are of staring a speared parrotfish in the eye and of watching a Spanish Dancer that had washed up in the tide. There was a kind of frozen stillness to the parrotfish contrasting with the brilliance of its coloration and the bloody hole where the spear had gone in and the grit of sand encroaching on the design of its body. I didn’t like seeing it dead. This seemed so much the opposite of the intent of its design, in a way more intense and direct than I’d experienced before.
The Spanish dancer meant something different. It looked like a living burgundy skirt tumbling there in the rush-retreat of the surf. It fascinated me: What kind of creature is this? Even in a place with a remarkable diversity of sea life I’d never seen anything like it. This was the first time I thought about how strange and alien life on Earth really is, which led later to thinking about what we take for granted.
The third memory involves the starfish. Fiji is composed of volcanic islands with reefs almost right offshore. One night, my parents took my sister and me out walking on a reef. I believe there was some research purpose for my parents. I remember it was windy and dark, with different variations and intensities of shadow in the sea and the sky; stars everywhere above. It was exhilarating but also disorienting. Several times I lost the thread and couldn’t locate the shore. In the midst of this, kind of excited and frightened at the same time, we came upon a Crown of Thorns starfish, which is known as a “destroyer of worlds” because it feasts on coral—so voraciously that people sometimes kill them. This, then, is one reason why I thought of “Annihilation” as the title of the first novel.
I don’t know if the Crown of Thorns was bioluminescent or that my mom was shining a flashlight down into the saltwater grotto. But in memory the starfish is huge and glowing red and among the most beautiful and terrible things I have ever seen. Something so anomalous against the darkness even though a natural part of the landscape—just not to me. I’m trying to be precise here to capture it correctly, even though no matter how many times I describe it, something about it keeps slipping through my fingers, so to speak. There’s also the hyper-reality of creating your own personal mythology, where encounters or images have a different significance and so are transformed in your head until the memory itself isn’t real on some level. And all of that, including confusion and awe, is channeled into the scene where the biologist encounters the starfish.
But memory also becomes structural. I always thought of the structure of Acceptance as being like a starfish: it has limbs that feed into the center, and the center is the biologist’s account. Now, this structure is a construct, like the starfish memory is now a kind of construct, because no novel can really look like a starfish in form unless you somehow had the option of reading each “arm” in any order you wanted and read the center last…but somehow thinking of it that way was of use to me. So now I wonder about how you bring autobiography into design and also if you sometimes create mental constructs that help you to envision something?
PM: Hmmn. I mean, yes, I do bring autobiography into my work, but only to the extent to which I bring my personal experience to bear when reading the books I am making covers for. Not that it’s a particularly revelatory or original thought, but my reading imagination—not just mine, but everyone’s—is not only stimulated and influenced by memory, but in some sense actually constructed of memory. In other words, the building blocks of the imagination are memory fragments. When I imagine, I retrofit and combine these pieces of my past in order to envision the narrative I am reading. For example, the “biologist” in your trilogy was, for me, my high school biology teacher. Not her exactly—I may have swapped out some of her features to make her mesh better with your biologist—but my teacher was the manikin upon which I hung your character’s physical descriptions. Her other features I borrowed from other people I’ve known. Your character John Rodriguez, or “Control,” was, in my mind, a soccer coach of mine who had a similar name. And he shared some facial characteristics with Alexander Knox, the actor who played Control on the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. (pics of Lee Evans and Alexander Knox)
Whitby was “played” in my imagination by the English actor Lee Evans (I have no explanation for this choice. Why him? I’m sure there is a reason. I’ve said it before, but, like dreams, the reading imagination can be psychoanalyzed.) No part of this process of mental casting happened consciously. I was unaware that I was doing this while reading. I am only aware of it after the fact. Whereas what you are describing is a mindful act: a craftsmanlike mining of personal history; a conscious use of this material to make something new. So it’s pretty different. In any case, all of that is to say that when it comes time to make a book jacket, I’m usually referring visually to something I’ve already personalized.
I’ve also never had the experience of using my autobiographical experience to structure a work of design. And I’m not sure how this would function with design, which depends so much on the author’s program and content. So your comment about the branching structure of your books is fascinating to me. And it makes perfect sense—this idea of “arms” extending from a central narrative. I’m sure you’ve answered this question elsewhere, but now that we are on to the idea of narrative structure, I’ve been curious since reading the trilogy; were they conceived originally as three books? I keep imagining the thing as being originally one large text, that was split in parts later to suit a publication plan (An ingenious publication plan by the way). But I realize I have no real reason to think this…
JV: The Southern Reach trilogy is a collapsed quartet: Authority and Acceptance devoured all the story planned for book four. (A blessing anyway, because I couldn’t think of a good “A”-word title for a fourth novel.) These particular novels I thought of in terms of their character arcs, so to me they are three separate books in that each contains the complete arc of a particular character. This gets more complicated in Acceptance, because that novel is so filled with ghosts—there’s a reason the last section of Authority is called “Afterlife”. For example, in essence Control becomes Ghost Control in Acceptance and Ghost Bird is still a kind of ghost and so are the former director and the lighthouse keeper inasmuch as they exist in the past. Even the biologist is a kind of ghost as in “P.S. I’m a ghost. Love, the Biologist.” This is all within the larger phantasmagoria that’s the over-arching storyline so in the sense of that storyline—if that’s how you define a book with an overt, metastasized mystery in it—I suppose the three books do form one uber-book. But a compelling case can be made for their autonomy on other levels—including that each one has such a different structure, while it’s equally true that there’s a lot of cross-stitching that binds all three together. To diagram that you’d almost have something that looks like a physics diagram of how particles work. Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus was definitely an influence in that regard; in his case, three very different novellas allow the reader to piece together what’s going on. Each novella stands alone but also forms part of a greater whole. (Another interesting structure is Nabokov’s Pnin, where a seeming story suite locks into place as a novel only with the final lines.)
This is why I find the diagram on page 316 of your book describing Kafka’s vision of New York City very compelling. Those arrows going off in different directions, which if you were to do a thorough mapping of certain fictions would become an even more gnarled mass of arrows finding almost infinite wormholes of connections and pointings in even more directions. And I love how, almost like that diagram about Kafka and New York, you’re continually trying out different structures in What We See When We Read, which is in a way an attempt to imagine the different ways that people read in addition to the effects writers create. Not just the receipt of vision through dream, poetics, the narcotic, but those stereo-like balance indicators you’ve got: Dream, Hallucination, Veridical Perception, Reading Imagination.
As a reader, do you have limits as to how extreme those four elements can get in one direction or another? What’s too strange even for you? And what will make you throw a book against the wall, figuratively or literally?
PM: Nothing is too strange for me—the stranger the better. Really. There are so many bland books in the world. And so much dull writing. So strange is good. And I believe a generous, committed reader will follow a writer pretty much anywhere. For instance, I loved the conversations between your books—the speech fragments from Annihilation you mentioned earlier, which appear in Authority. I wasn’t exactly sure, as I was reading, why these splinters of dialogue were echoing around the Southern Reach, but their inclusion didn’t in any way rupture the paranormal logic you had already established. Why do you ask? Do you ever worry about pushing that “weird” boundary too far in your writing? It is very impressive how much narrative energy and drive these books of yours have, given how awesomely strange they are. Which I mean as the highest possible complement. But I see how you could become engaged on this topic of “how weird is too weird…”
JV: It’s something you’re hardwired to think about early on because you can get tagged as “difficult” or “inaccessible.” I don’t like it when reviewers say this about a writer because they’re basically pre-judging the tastes of readers who might find something perfectly normal if given a more sympathetic entry-point. The truly weird thing to me is how we sometimes seem to want to distance ourselves from the more idiosyncratic and unique imaginations out there. If everyone’s creating squares and someone makes a circle, you shouldn’t tell people “this one’s not a square” but instead “look—here’s this interesting circle!”
At the same time, though, as a younger writer, I never really thought about the space left for the reader in a text and because my own personal tolerance for strangeness in the fiction I read is very high I do find I have to monitor this a bit. Finding a balance between the peculiar and the familiar in the narrative in such a way that it’s good for the narrative rather than an issue of pandering to some flawed idea of audience—that is difficult.
A novel shines a kind of light, even if it’s the light of a collapsed star, drawing you in. You get to decide the kind of light and its oscillation, whether it’s a warm light or a cold light. How distant the source of the light. Refractions in a prism or a prison. Range light. Fixed light. Occulting light. But the reader shines a light into the novel as well.
Area X is available on Amazon
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