Recommended Halloween read: Jeff VanderMeer's Acceptance

The Southern Reach Trilogy concludes, and no one gets the answers they expect.

click to enlarge Recommended Halloween read: Jeff VanderMeer's Acceptance (2) - Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Recommended Halloween read: Jeff VanderMeer's Acceptance (2)

Looking for an ominous but high-minded Halloween read? This might be the one — or rather, the three. Acceptance marks the close of Tallahassee author Jeff VanderMeer’s ambitious, mind-bending Southern Reach trilogy, which totals about 800 pages but thoroughly deserves to be read back-to-back.

The trilogy tells the story of a government agency tasked with monitoring a dangerous, mysterious coastal zone known as Area X, and unravelling the mystery of its sudden appearance, lethal effects, and the unseen, ominous force that created it.

Acceptance is full of monsters – some disturbingly benign, some otherworldly strange, and others never quite glimpsed – and provides at least a bit of resolution to the looming question of what exactly Area X is. But VanderMeer has much higher ambitions than telling a spooky tale of alien invasion or supernatural appearance. In the tradition of Night of the Living Dead, The Stand, and especially John Carpenter’s The Thing, this is a work that unleashes unspeakable horrors mostly to explore the complicated, contradictory attempts of its very human characters to cope.

Acceptance focuses on the staff of the Southern Reach agency, including its bickering, frail administrators, their menacing higher-ups, and the adventurous but ultimately helpless underlings sent into Area X to figure out what the hell is going on. Fans of Vandermeer will recognize a matured, more realistic version of his short story “The Situation,” which chronicled the struggles of a bioengineer to manage postapocalyptic office politics.

The characters fighting to control the investigation are mostly slaves to their own demons — a new Director whose disappointing career has left him in the shadow of a domineering mother, a Deputy who was perhaps a bit too loyal to the old Director, a Biologist whose husband perished in Area X, and an executive administrator whose own scars have left him manipulative and rageful. The staff of the Southern Reach are sad, disappointed people, but they’re also acutely aware that they may have been tasked with preventing the destruction of Earth.

It makes for more than a few standoffs, double-crosses, and dark revelations, but this isn’t a thriller in any conventional sense (though that’s what it’s likely to become in the hands of Paramount, which has optioned the trilogy). Instead of shock and tension, what Area X mostly brings out of its explorers, and of readers, is a sense of despair at the fallenness of humans, as individuals and as a species. Acceptance frequently touches on environmental themes, suggesting that the Area X event was some sort of response to rampant pollution, while the mind games that infest the Southern Reach speak to the long moment of intense social and political distrust that we live in.

That sounds dour, and it sometimes is, but it’s leavened by the hugely imaginative and skillful way that VanderMeer first suggests, then very carefully semi-reveals his horrors over the course of the trilogy. Whether you’re a fan of evocative, atmospheric dread or in-your-face monstrosities, you’ll get both here. Sourceless moans in the far distance? Check. Slugs writing biblical verse across walls? Check. Skyscraper-sized leviathans slamming their million-eyed bulk into the sides of buildings? Big check.

What you won’t get [mild spoiler alert, maybe?], thankfully if you ask me, are any easy answers to the question at the core of the books. On one level, the confusion that agitates VanderMeer’s characters distorts how each one interprets and interacts with Area X so thoroughly that no clear picture emerges even as they inch towards understanding.

But more impressively, VanderMeer manages to capture on the page a profound experience of the unknowable, something beyond human understanding, beyond the frames of time and space that we ourselves live in. What distinguishes Area X most completely over the course of the Southern Reach trilogy is that on the surface, it appears to those who enter it as a kind of untouched wilderness (one directly inspired by Florida), which actively erodes any signs of human technology, construction, even presence. The master turn at the heart of Acceptance is that, for modern humankind, the truth of nature can be the most maddening, incomprehensible thing of all.

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