Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Southern Reach (#3)
I read it: February 2015
There comes a time in every series when the pages are winding down. You will have to leave the characters soon, after all this time together. You get nervous. How can the author wrap all this up in just a few short chapters? At first you wanted to race through, and now you wish there was a whole extra volume after this one.
So we have to talk about endings. They can get incredibly touchy, especially in genres like science fiction, horror, or fantasy. People will argue about whether the mysteries of the Southern Reach books are properly answered. I think that many are, yet some big ones are not. Plotwise, it can be argued a few different ways. What about everything-wise, including the emotional resonance of the characters themselves?
In this piece from The Stake about problematic endings, Chris ZF writes:
A finale is not only about tying up the loose-ends, or revealing the mystery, or pairing up the central romantic coupling. It’s also always about showing the audience out of the auditorium with dignity. About closing the back-cover of the book with a few last lines to hold on to and remember. I’ve invested, give me some return. Don’t cheat me out of my investment.
I don’t feel cheated by Jeff VanderMeer at all. This remains a creative, thought-provoking, satisfying read right down to the end. All the main characters are accounted for and taken seriously. But the series gets an extra chance to say its own words about mysteries themselves, because the story if fundamentally about the human need to know, organize, and control, “as if purpose could solve everything.” Our own ache to see behind the curtain is reflected in the characters’ ability to deal (or not) with their puzzling circumstances, to struggle with “that tension between what [we] could and couldn’t know about even the mundane world.”
What we don’t know will always far exceed what we do know. And this final book gives itself away right in the title: we will either find acceptance gracefully, or it will be forced upon us. The author has given us a highly fantastic yet plausible fictional world, and challenges readers to see themselves within it. What would you do with only scraps of knowledge? With mere glimpses of the whole? This is simply how we live every day.
Some parting thoughts about VanderMeer’s writing. He sneaks in so many great nuggets about the human condition, and this one in particular stuck out:
As if there were nothing worse than being bored and the only point of the world people already lived in was to find ways to combat boredom, to make sure “all the moments” . . . might be accounted for in some way, so minds wouldn’t fill up with emptiness that they bifurcated simply to have more capacity to be bored.
That’s some astute spiritual philosophizing about the ways the mind constantly analyzes with no pause to simply experience.
Also, one last emphasis on his Lovecraft skills. I thought that the concept as a whole had a lot in common with the particular story “The Colour Out of Space.” Some of the specifics of the writing itself also does the trick:
Those thousands of eyes regarding him, reading him from across a vast expanse of space, as if the biologist existed simultaneously halfway across the universe. The sensation of being seen and then relief and then a stabbing disappointment as it withdrew, spit him out. Rejected him.
Two more things. One, the phrase “ancient of days” is used. I’ve had this rattling around in my head for years, and I have no idea where I first heard it. I always thought it’d make a great song title. I began to question if it was even grammatically coherent. And here it is. Secondly: he loves the word leviathan! It’s the go-to term in Acceptance for all sorts of shiver-inducing beasts both real and metaphorical. An awesome word for an awesome book.
I feel really lucky to have experienced this story, and I have no doubt it will reward another visit someday. It just seems to have it all.
Up the leviathans.