REVIEW: AUTHORITY / AUTHOR: JEFF VANDERMEER / PUBLISHER: FOURTH ESTATE / RELEASE DATE: MAY 6TH
Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation was a master class in affecting, unsettling and hallucinogenic storytelling, resembling multiple genres but fitting into none of them. The second in The Southern Reach trilogy is a far different beast. The narrative is surprisingly comfortable, given its strangeness, and in many ways it’s more of an accessible read.
Authority is set, for the most part, inside the heart of the clandestine Southern Reach and answers questions lingering from the previous novel. Knowing what became of the biologist is both joyous and disturbing. With Authority, the reader is able to see things from a more concrete, tangible position, it no longer feels like an outsider looking in, but rather the reader is the insider looking out.
The novel presents a more immediately recognisable environment, whereas Annihilation had an otherworldly feel. Area X could have sprung up anywhere, the biologist’s flashbacks offering no definite location; Authority is more obviously cemented in America, contextualising the story and giving the reader a handhold onto the narrative, a vantage point to take in the struggle between the other and the familiar.
Control is very much the reader’s champion, leading them by the hand, a link between what the reader understands and the nebulous Area X. He’s a palpable character, yet like all aspects of the novel he is oddly removed. The characterisation is deftly done, Control, Grace, Whitby and co are damaged but not so far gone as the women from Annihilation.
The text is visceral, saturated with paranoia and reminiscent of J.G. Ballard. The novel functions on the power of suggestion and indeed that’s where most of the horror comes from, like a magician's sleight of hand. The pages describing an incident with some rabbits and camera footage are particularly unpleasant.
The novel has a cut-up quality, a composition style favoured by David Bowie and William S. Burroughs, which gives the impression that the novel can be rearranged at will, read in multiple ways, like an unsettling choose-your-own adventure.
Authority is a work of sublime beauty and darkness, one takes neither the side of Area X nor those investigating it; instead it’s a study in change. Jeff VanderMeer is one of the finest contemporary American authors and the third and final Southern Reach novel is sure to be quite spectacular, though you may want some light relief in the meantime.