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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

Authority. Or lack thereof.

Authority: A Novel - Jeff VanderMeer

If Annihilation reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s writing, then Authority reminded me of Kafka, but not the interesting Kafka, one of the boring ones, which surely if I say which one, my dear friends are going to quickly assure me that I’m quite wrong and there is no way Kafka could ever be boring with such Big Ideas. So maybe I don’t mean Kafka. Maybe I mean one of those other stodgy old writers from Advanced English who was clearly writing about the Human Condition in Big Fat Metaphors. Maybe Moby Dick. Is it safe to call Moby Dick boring? It also reminded me a little of Joseph Heller, in Something Happened, when, of course, nothing does happen. Or Waiting for Godot, only more like Waiting for Area X. Or maybe I’m thinking of that movie Brazil, which is what I always think of when I think of big, boring films about Meaning of Corporations. Which is probably not what Brazil is even about, but you’ll never get me to watch it again, so it doesn’t matter. In my mind, it’s always about a faceless bureaucracy. Anyway, just think of some story from your memory of something that was well-done, full of Deep Meaning about the Human Condition, with a confused narrator, a whole lot of navel-gazing about Ineffectual Man, and you’ll about have it.

 

Authority is clearly the next side to the prism that composes the Southern Reach Trilogy, but this installment is focused a new character, government official John Rodriguez. He’s been transferred in as replacement of the missing Director of the Southern Reach. In keeping with the tradition of roles superceding names, John adopts a childhood moniker ‘Control.’  His arrival occurs shortly after the Biologist and her team has returned to the Reach (!) sans memories and missing the psychologist. As Control seeks to puzzle out the mystery of the Biologist and the Reach, he also faces interagency status conflicts, with antagonism from the Voice above as well as from below, in the form of Assistant Director Grace:

 

But Control preferred to think of her as neither patience nor grace. He preferred to think of her as an abstraction if not an obstruction. She had made him sit through an old orientation video about Area X, must have known it would be basic and out of date. She had already made clear that theirs would be a relationship based on animosity. From her side, at least.

 

Maybe the transfer is a plot to get rid of him. Maybe its a plot his mother has to advance his career. Maybe it’s just the only job available to a man who compromised his cases. It is hard for both the reader and Control to tell, and honestly, I don’t know that I cared. He’s not an anti-hero, just an everyday bureaucrat trying to do the best he can and survive complex corporate politics. And complex family politics. ‘Control’ is clearly an irony for a man who has none.

 

We experience the rotting-honey smell of the Reach (!) through the new eyes of Control, as he almost but-not-quite bonds with both the Biologist held in isolation and the ghost of the former Director (I’m not spoiling anything; I’m not being literal here, people. I think). If I enjoyed Craig Johnson‘s show-don’t tell mysteries, this is pretty much the opposite; not a lot happens except in Control’s head, with a few bizarre incidents spurring him onward.

But the writing! I love the writing, so vivid and clever and allegorical, except that almost every little bit is vivid and clever and allegorical so it really does need a bit of a driver to engage my emotions:

 

Before he’d arrived, Control had imagined himself flying free above the Southern Reach, swooping down from some remote perch to manage things. That wasn’t going to happen. Already his wings were burning up and he felt more like some ponderous moaning creature trapped in the mire.

 

Remember the swamp creature from Annihilation? Of course you do! What does it mean? Is Area X is the Reach, and the Reach is Area X? Maybe. I don’t know, and am not entirely sure I care. Enough navel-gazing, Control.

 

Much like Zone One, Colin Whitehead’s brush with zombie Metaphorical Fiction, this book missing the five star despite truly excellent writing, purely out of personal taste and enjoyment. Well written, well-crafted, I read it because I’d like to see Vandermeer’s gestalt, as well as know more about Area X.  Onward!