Review: Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

There is a scene late in Authority (FSG Originals, May 2014) in which one character explains to another the manic gyrations of a beetle the two them are observing: The pesticide with which the insect came into contact is suffocating it, causing it to stumble about in panic. It’s dying. The character ends the beetle’s suffering by crushing it beneath her heel. That scene is an apt metaphor for the experience of reading Authority: The reader is the bug writhing in the shadow of Jeff VanderMeer’s foot.

Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second book of VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. While not exactly essential to follow the story in Authority, it’s recommended that readers begin with Annihilation, published in February. And, although I hate to have to say it: Spoiler alert. Whoop, whoop, sirens go off.

Authority picks up less with where Annihilation lets off than it does more with a different thread. Here the story remains firmly outside of the mysterious “Area X,” into which readers ventured in Annihilation. The setting is Florida, in a containment zone that comprises and cushions Area X from its surrounding environs. The Southern Reach, an obscure government department attached to Homeland Security, presides over Area X, investigating in a desultory fashion. The Southern Reach has learned very little about Area X over the previous two decades, and is still smarting from the loss of its most recent expedition. The organization is rudderless, its director having joined the expedition as the team psychologist. It’s this situation that disgraced agent John Rodriguez, AKA “Control,” inherits as the new director of the Southern Reach, perhaps due to the influence of his mother. (Control has serious mommy issues.)

Control immediately begins investigating the latest expedition, his efforts focused on (surprise!) the biologist, who returned from Area X just before his arrival. Between interrogating the defiant biologist, who insists that she is not herself, despite having memories of her life before her time in Area X, the director engages in office politics with the Assistant Director, Grace, and encounters some of the oddities that Area X generates, for instance, a plant in his desk drawer, placed there by the previous director, that just won’t die. And, of course, there are the words scrawled in his closet: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Bad juju.

Don't you set foot in Area X. Don't you do it.

Don’t you set foot in Area X. Don’t you do it.

Ultimately, then, if Annihilation is something of a “journey into mystery,” Authority is more of a spy novel, albeit one that is a comedy of errors. Rodriguez’s choice of “Control” to serve as his handle is ironic; it’s clear that he’s out of his depth. The superior to whom Control reports, “the Voice,” ineptly screams obscenities at him. Control visits the gateway to Area X, but the guards inform him that the commanding officer has stepped out. Control vomits into a toilet after a confrontation with Grace. My guess is that, for all the surreal goings-on, this is a more accurate portrayal of the life of spies than readers have otherwise encountered.

Of course, it isn’t spycraft that interests VanderMeer, it’s “the Weird.” As with Annihilation, VanderMeer masterfully establishes an unsettling atmosphere. Nature itself seems to conspire against Control and his subordinates: The air is always muggy, and rains come and go every day. Then, too, there is the catalog of strangeness that builds up around any bureaucracy and in any office: The infighting, the awkward attempts at conviviality, the depressing tones of the carpets and trim, the smell of the wrong disinfectant. Area X is just miles away, and, after the scene in which Control watches footage of an experiment in which scientists forced rabbits across its border, the presence of that strange land looms like a threat.

Comparisons between Authority and Annihilation are inevitable. On the whole, Authority has been very well received, moreso than its predecessor. Still, individual taste being idiosyncratic, I have to admit that I liked Authority less than Annihilation. Part of it is temperament, of course; I liked being “on the ground” in Area X in Annihilation, and, as an office drone, some of the setting of Authority struck too close to home. In my opinion, though, Annihilation was the stronger of the two books because it was so compressed; VanderMeer distilled the Weird down to its very essence. Where Annihilation was tightly coiled, Authority meanders. It is a longer book, and, at times, seems to be unspooling: Scenes go on too long, or VanderMeer is more verbose than this reader would prefer. Because Control knows so little about Area X and even the Southern Reach, the narrative is told from his point of view, which involves a great deal of speculation. VanderMeer devotes considerable space to Control wondering along the lines of, “What is this? Could it be this? But then, it could also be this.” The sense of uncertainty is palpable, but it becomes a thicket through which the reader must force his or her way, and, at times, it becomes exhausting.

This is not to in any way suggest that Authority is not worth the reader’s time. Indeed, the second half of the book is briskly paced, and events unfold much faster than in previous chapters, to this reader’s delight. As with Annihilation, VanderMeer, with Authority, remains at the top of his game. If Annihilation is one of the best books of 2014–we’re halfway through, and I still maintain that it is–then Authority is a worthy successor. Highly recommended.

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