Area X penetrated Philadelphia on the evening of Thursday, September 25. Author Jeff VanderMeer ushered in a night of the uncanny at the Free Library of Philadelphia, abetted by Geekadelphia, and an owl (the latter provided courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences).
I’ve gushed at length about VanderMeer’s recent novels, Annihilation and Authority, going to far as to collect links related to the former. (As of this writing, I’m one-third of the way through the last novel in the trilogy, Acceptance.) I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear VanderMeer speak in person. (And he signed my copy of Annihilation.)
VanderMeer did a short reading from Acceptance, from a portion I have not yet read. I considered bumrushing the podium and knocking the book from his hands, but decided that would be impolite. Fortunately, he read a few pages that weren’t too spoilery (confirmed for me by a friend who was also in attendance). VanderMeer’s tone and the pacing of his speech was flat, without inflection, hypnotic. Combined with his style, heavy with clauses, it reminded me of the surge and retreat of surf beating upon a shore. Hearing VanderMeer read from Acceptance was helpful for me; I’ve been having difficulty “getting into” this last book, and his reading made his style more accessible to me.
VanderMeer noted that the Southern Reach trilogy is his second attempt to write about Florida. He first wrote about the “Sebring Squid Festival,” a faux-journalistic account of a fictional festival set in a real Florida town. This story caused him no end of headaches: Packages of dried squid sent to him in the mail; notes from angry marine biologists; an offer from a BBC representative to talk about the squid for a documentary; and a voicemail from a fisherman who claimed to have caught one of the squid in Louisiana. After that call, unsure how the fisherman got his number, and given that the squid he describes is not real, VanderMeer decided to pursue a more fantastical approach.
VanderMeer discussed the novels at length with a representative from Geekadelphia. It’s clear that nature, and humanity’s relationship to it, is one of VanderMeer’s concerns. He lamented the state of environmental education (in the United States), noting that American children are “developmentally challenged” in regards to their connection with nature. He pointed to his essay “Bear versus Texting Man: Our Spectacular Disconnection,” in which no publisher showed any interest; it was “too depressing.” Much of the novels were informed by his hikes throughout northern Florida, where he encountered the boar (noted in Annihilation). A slideshow running in the background included pictures VanderMeer took during his hikes.
One of the major themes of the novels is the encounter of individuals with institutions, and the conflict that ensues, “Lord of the Flies with middle management,” he called it. VanderMeer, in his previous work, which he can’t discuss (creepy), actually found a dead mouse and dead plant in a desk drawer, wondering if they were left as some kind of message. Likewise, the smashed mosquito that Control encounters in Authority was drawn from VanderMeer’s own experiences. So, too, was the character of Whitby. One of VanderMeer’s colleagues would, from time to time, approach him and ask, “Do you want to see a strange room?” His answer was always “no,” both because he wanted to continue to be employed, but also because his “writer’s brain” didn’t want to know what was in the room–he wanted to fill it in later. Edit: VanderMeer memorably described the character Whitby as “the Smeagol of the Southern Reach.”
Afterwards, there was a question and answer period with the audience. We then headed upstairs to get pictures with the owl! Why the owl, you might wonder. Its presence was informed by the character of the Biologist (“Ghost Bird”), who has an attachment to the creature. Given the novels’ focus on nature, it made sense, once it was suggested, to have the owl (“Arizona”) present. (FYI: Barn owls can live up to 15 years.)
A good evening with an author who is having great success this year.