The Eerie Resonance Of The Southern Reach Trilogy

Tomorrow lands the newest by Jeff VanderMeer: Acceptance.

It’s the third and final book in the whoa-dang-wow Southern Reach trilogy.

Now, there’s this meme going around Facebook which is rara avis in that I actually like it (most Facebook memes are thought-excrement) — while some have simplified it as ten books you love, the original meme is, ten books that have ‘stayed with you.’

I like that. Stayed with you.

Clinging to you like a smell.

I’ll do a proper post about this later in the week about my ten books, but I want to explain to you one of the ways that VanderMeer’s trilogy has stayed with me, and it has to do with the forest with which I have surrounded myself.

We have about seven acres of land here, and most of that land is forest.

It’s mostly native growth. It’s old forest, old trees, a healthy ecosystem of birds and bugs and other things traipsing about on four legs (lots of deer, a few foxes, even some kind of… polecat-looking thing, seen only in the distance and by its little side-by-side tracks).

Sometimes I take a walk through these woods.

I find it peaceful.

And I find it unnerving.

In part it’s unnerving because it’s a primal space. I don’t belong there. It is not mine. It’s bigger than me. It’s profound. It feels like I could lay down on the moss and the loam and die and nobody would ever know. Skin eaten. Bones sunken. Roots claiming all of me.

I find it unnerving more because the forest is never properly familiar — it’s not some room with its furniture, its items arranged in a human way. The forest is chaos. It’s new trees and spiny-assed micrathena spiders and deer bones. The forest, too, changes year to year. Storms break trees. Branches drop. Stumps rot. Heavy rains made a furrow in the earth — an impromptu stream. And, strangest still, we have invasive grasses springing up. They’re ornamental grasses — the kind you go to buy at Home Depot or Lowe’s, various Silvergrasses, and these grasses should never have been sold, should never have been planted, because they’re insidious. Day to day you don’t think much about them but year to year more pop up and you find them in strange places, you find them deeper in the woods where they don’t belong. You find them choking out other plants. The grass changes the forest a little bit here, a little bit there, until one day a little bit has become a great deal, until one day you find grape leaves strangling trees. Shiny beetles from far away chewing through leaves. Ticks and thorns alike burying themselves in your skin.

I step into the woods and I don’t always recognize them.

In that moment, I feel panic. I feel disconnected. I feel intruded upon.

And then that shifts: I feel like an intruder.

I feel very human and very small and it’s eerie and uneasy and awesome in the truest sense.

It’s like looking at someone whose facial features drift apart, micrometer by micrometer — not something you notice at first, but then one day you don’t see them for a few months and when next you visit, they no longer look human.

It’s like entering a room you know is yours, but things have been moved. Just slightly. Your potted plant has changed. Initials that aren’t yours lay carved into the wood of the desk. The picture of your family is from a vacation you didn’t take. Everything feels off its axis.

This is the feeling of the Southern Reach trilogy.

You could do a whole masters-level class on how VanderMeer creates a mood.

(And, in an adjacent way, how VanderMeer uses the text and the mood of it to confront things like invasive species or man’s deleterious effect on himself and his environment.)

It’s early on a Labor Day and I assure you I’m not doing this book justice.

You will just have to check the books out for yourself.



*eyes slowly begin to drift apart as vines push out of mouth*

21 responses to “The Eerie Resonance Of The Southern Reach Trilogy”

  1. Love the column. That final line…yeah, mega-creepy image.

    I got his Wonderbook last year after reading about it in your column. Love it, and so I just got the first book in the trilogy.

  2. ACCEPTANCE is an amazing read and wraps up the trilogy without answering everything, but leaving you satisfied. Chuck, you’re absolutely right talking about how Jeff is able to command mood and dread and intrusion, while also exploring larger themes, while also pushing the narrative forward? It’s insane but he pulls it off. The whole trilogy has challenged me as a reader and a writer.

    (Fun fact: At Clarion this summer, the Vandermeers taught, and I had the chance to read ACCEPTANCE a little early; Jeff let me borrow his own last copyedited version. Expect no spoilers, but I will say, just from reading that copyedited version, seeing his notes and precision editing, it’s clear that Jeff has worked his ass off, and put his heart and soul into this book and entire trilogy).

  3. I keep telling myself “don’t do it! Don’t add more books to your about to topple to be read pile.” But. These sound like must reads. Very creepy. Eeek creepy.

    Your description of the forest is sublime – except for the things that shift around. *looks over shoulder*

    I feel like this when I’m in Mississippi – on my father in law’s land. He’s got a lot of acreage, and I run a big loop in an area we call “the bottom.” Even on a bright sunny day, the loneliness of that huge field, the quiet stillness in the heat of the day, when I can only hear distant screech of a hawk or maybe a faint rustle of grass from the hot breeze is…unnerving. I know I’m being watched. I can feel it. I’ve never seen anything…, but I always, always think about the coyote we hear at night – usually from the direction of…yep, you got it, from that spot I just ran a few hours before. Maybe in protest for besmirching their place with my human sweat and smell.

    Off to check out the books!

  4. Wendigo has forest issues? Hm.

    I will take your recommendation and I will try this thing. If by some chance I fly on feet of fire, I’ll drop by for coffee.

  5. 40 acres of primal forest surround us here in Michigan. I took a walk through it last night, and if you walk between trees- spider web. Since walking between trees is unavoidable in a forest, I walked out feeling wrapped up and covered in spiders. I wasn’t covered in spiders, but they were coming, they are out there now using their spider senses (found in eyes 3 and 6) to track me down.

  6. I devoured ANNIHILATION so quickly and read it twice, which already says much about the book. Any book I read twice means YOU should read it.Any book I read twice consecutively means it’s a book that will/did stay with me. I need to get on the stick and devour the other two.

    I, too, live on the edge of the wilderness. Elk, deer, bear, coyote, and cougar traipse through my property often. But, the two-legged wild ones are the ones that leave me uneasy and unhinged. It’s the stray dog from the crazy neighbor down the road that makes me panic for my realm. They are the Southern Reach Authority, as well as the creature in the tower.

  7. I liked the first book except for one thing: I did not believe that the narrator was a woman. I got that she was supposed to be detached because she was a biologist making observations, but I thought the author came up short in terms of capturing a woman’s point of view. The glitch I felt while reading was a distraction. I might give the other books a try because there was a lot of promise in the story, but I’ve still got one eyebrow raised about the narrator.

  8. Too slow, Chuck! This had been on pre-order list for months. I’m just waiting Amazon to release this from their lichen covered cage.

    I grew up on a farm surrounded by the Ozarks. During the day, they felt like an old friend. I never got lost. The night was another story.

    Like it was completely different place.

  9. I identified with this particular post a lot.

    I grew up in a similarly wild acreage in western PA, and while we often played in the woods, we knew we could never be *of* the woods.

    The Southern Reach has gotten its roothold into me in a similar way, it’s profoundly creepy and speaks to something in me which is otherwise indescribable. I’m looking forward to Acceptance! I love everything of his that I’ve read, but this trilogy is doing its damnedest to claw its way to the top.

  10. I am a bit late to this party, but I read Authority first and didn’t know what to think about it. After reading the first one, the second one makes more sense but I am going to re-read it. The thing about the books that have gotten under my skin is the text in the tunnel/tower/topological anomaly. “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” It is just so creepy, would love to see Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones read that.

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