A "review" of Jeff VanderMeer - Authority

You and I will be together
When we shed our memory
— They Might Be Giants, "Erase"

Imagine an adventure. Imagine going on an exciting adventure, like a James Bond action story, or a suspenseful murder mystery. That's Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation.

Now imagine, at the conclusion of the adventure, James Bond's departmental accountant carefully ordering all of 007's accrued expense reports then filling out forms for regulatory compliance and fiduciary reimbursal purposes. Imagine a spry novice detective finding the killer with a brilliantly lateral bit of inspiration, then leaving while a small team of uniformed police officers take everyone's statements and dutifully record them into sprial-bound notebooks to be later processed as evidence. Imagine, also, this ex post facto processing procedure being performed. Meticulously. That's Jeff VanderMeer's Authority.

Are you bored yet? You should be. We all love a good story. What we don't entertain is the droll paperwork that comes after the credits roll. We love to see our heroes ride off into the sunset, not seated at a desk reviewing files, scheduling followup interviews, and thinking about their relationship with their mothers. Wait, what?

Let me start with the beginning. Annihilation gave us the biologist, a very flawed, very human narrator who transcends her basic role of just an anonymous observer. She becomes a person. We grow to understand her foibles and as we understand them better, we understand her better, too. Authority shifts the narrative away from the biologist to a new person. A person with a name and everything.

As well as Annihilation built up the enigma that is Area X, Authority tears it all down, the way a young child would break a stained-glass window just to see the pretty shards fall and savor the impulsive joy of making chaos for the sake of chaos. That child, that chaos, is John "Control" Rodriguez. The irony of this is not lost on me.

Think of this as solving problems
That should never have occurred
Please don't call it strangulation
That is such an ugly word

After the warm camaraderie that VanderMeer carefully fosters with the biologist's narrative, the change in Authority is bracing, like a cup of ice water thrown in your face, or a sharp slap across your cheek. He cautiously blew on a fragile ember in the tinder of Annihilation and created the bright, burning flame of the biologist. Then he dumped ice water on it and called it "Control". "Control" is so smug and self-assure that his internal monologue grates on you like a cat's claws. He's douchey, he's bland, he's smarmy. He gave himself the nickname "Control". 'Nuff said.

John, or "Yawn", as I have grown to call him, is brought in to lead the Southern Reach after the events of Annihilation. The mystery of Area X that we experienced first-hand has a terrible counterpart to it: the sheer inescapable beaureacracy of the research organization tasked with assembling the expeditions. Yawn is awful, as a character, as a narrator, and as a person. Authority wastes nearly a hundred pages at the start meticulously boring you through Yawn's first day on the job — boring like boredom and boring like when someone drives a power drill through your skull. He spends the entirety of the longest day I have EVER read reminiscing about the complex relationship he has with his cold and distant mother, who is both distant and cold. Her coldness and her distance were very influential upon him, and he won't let up about it. Not until you understand that his cold mother was distant to him, and even after you get that subtle character trait of his, still he will not relent in reminding himself of how far away and chilly his cold and distant mother is to him, and how frosty and detached he feels about her coldness, and about her distance.

Finger find the button marked "Erase"
Like a deep sea diver falling into a mermaid's embrace

Years ago, Mr. Filthy reviewed the second Lord of the Rings movie and I will never forget his thoughts on it. They fit that movie and they suit Authority here with little modification:

"Jesus H. Christ, The Lord of the Rings 2 Authority was boring. And long. Holy crap, I can't even hang around people I like for three hours without wanting to punch somebody in the nose, so imagine the torture of spending it with speechifying goblins and wizards scientists and beaureaucrats."

"The Lord of the Rings 2 Authority is tedium. Oh, it's spectacular tedium, full of sweeping, breathtaking panoramas and hundreds of shots taken by helicopters circling mountain peaks descriptions of what sounds like Florida. ... It has no personality, no subtlety, juvenile characters and a simplistic plot. It has no personal conflict I cared about, and the dwarf John "Control" Rodriguez got on my fucking nerves."

Everyone gets on the bus out of town
And the lights start going out one by one

Authority is the continuation of the mystery, but it is not itself mysterious. It is the aftermath, the cleanup crew, the story of the adventurers' support team. They don't get to go on the adventures themselves, they just pick up the broken remnants and hand out cake and ice cream to any of the survivors. If Annihilation were an amazing stage play, slogging through Authority is like watching the stage technicians construct the set before the performance and tear it all down again and demanding that you buy a second ticket just to have the privilege of watching the process. I hated, hated, hated this book.

Everything that Jeff VanderMeer proved he could do as an author in Annihilation he apparently forgot in Authority. If you're the kind of asshole who loves knowing how the magician does all of his tricks, you may like this book just for the pure exposition that it divulges. While it does little to explain Area X, Authority takes a seemingly perverse delight in sapping the mystery from that story, quantifying everything you'd want to remain unsaid, naming names and going into obscene detail about much of what Annihilation left tantalizingly ambiguous or open to interpretation.

One of the most compelling and nuanced scenes in Annihilation is when the biologist finds a thing, an entity, she calls The Crawler. I do not wish to give much detail to this scene, it should be read to be believed. It is magical, emotional, and beguiling. She struggles with an ignorance of background information and a wash of sensory stimuli and confronts the situation like a person fighting tidal waves batting her body. Have you ever seen something so cosmically beautiful that it stops your breath? It's a deeply personal moment that every reader will perceive differently. It betrays the sanctity of that moment in Annihilation for Authority to come along and clumsily, rudely, stumble into the room, burp loudly, and announce with no great fanfare The Crawler's backstory. His name was Joe Schmoe and he was a mechanic down at the docks before The Big Bad Thing happened on October 8, 1996, at 2:23 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. It was a Tuesday!-- Harvey's Burrito Barn was having a half-price happy hour that day!

For fuck's sake, Jeff. For fuck's sake.

If Annihilation was a spooky campfire story told in the dead of night to delight and terrify its audience, Authority is that same storyteller the next morning continuing on with needless, extraneous details about who the escaped mental patient was, which psychiatrist diagnosed him, where he got his hook for a hand, who the teenagers parked in the car on Lovers' Lane were, where they came from, what kind of car it was, what shape of door handle it had, who gave them the car, whether or not its registration was up to date, who filed it with the county clerk and when, and how far Lovers' Lane is from Interstate 44. You have to take a right at the second light after Sam's Garage. If you get to Old Man MacGee's apple orchard you've gone too far.

Good god, Jeff, who gives a damn about all that shit? You're killing the whimsical yet ominous mood here.

Put one box on the sidewalk
And you return with the next and the first one's gone

The building blocks that Annihilation used to such great effect here are totally gone. This is a new player, playing a wholly different game. Did you like playing Street Figher? Cool! Now Street Fighter 2 is a tax-filing simulator. Don't forget to itemize your deductions for extra points! Authority fills in some background, unsatisfactorily I might add, and creates at best an interesting final 50 pages or so. Both Annihilation and Authority have breakneck-paced, cannot-put-it-down conclusions, the kind that will keep you compulsively turning pages until 4:30 in the morning if need be. I must have looked insane reading this book, putting on my glasses, picking up Authority, only reading a page, setting it down, taking my glasses off. Then staring off at nothing in particular like Nietzsche, contemplating what I'd just read, processing it for a minute, then putting my glasses on, picking the book up again, and reading another page and repeating this whole process again and again until it was over.

My biggest regret about Authority is that for a bucking-bronco ride of a 50-ish page denouement in the final act, the book is 352 pages long. The first 6/7ths of this book are banal, monotonous, and miserable. Just fucking miserable. There are a couple of bits and pieces thrown in to try, poorly, to keep this slog enticing. It feels like VanderMeer fed you an amazing breakfast and is now starving you over the course of a long, arduous day, throwing you only the meagerest of kitchen scraps, just to keep you alive and hungry while he prepares a late dinner, and it's degrading.

Button marked "Erase"
When darlings must be murdered,
When your heartbreak overrides the very thing you cannot face
The skeletons that won't stay down
The mercy kill that can't be drowned

If I were to reconsider Authority with a kinder view, and I honestly wouldn't, I would see it less of a story about Area X, that great revenant mystery of the first novel, and more about the relationship that Control creates inside his own mind with the biologist. Were I to see his actions as earnestly trying to decipher her like she was a puzzle it might not irritate me so. Yawn wastes a great deal of space waxing poetic about his designs on cracking the case and being the big hero, but the posturing absolutely murders the flow between the first book and the second. The relationship between the narrators is a reflection of their wildly different attitudes and styles. The idea of marrying them into a single unifying story is shallow and ill-fitting. It isn't Romeo and Juliet, or Fred and Ginger, or even Sid and Nancy. It's John and Yoko.

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