Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

 Acceptance is the final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the rest of which I reviewed a while ago, here and here. Spoiler warning for those books, I guess?

There are three major narrative threads in Acceptance, which the book alternates between by chapter—the lighthouse keeper, the Director, and Ghost Bird & Control. The Lighthouse Keeper’s story occurs before Area X has taken over the coast, though it soon becomes clear that Area X’s arrival is impending. The Director is the director from Annihilation, and her narrative takes place before the events of that book, showing the lead up to that expedition. Ghost Bird and Control (the book also alternates between them by chapter, though their stories form one continuous narrative) are entering Area X and trying to find the Biologist, their story picking up right where Authority ended.

All of these component parts are great. The Director chapters are reminiscent of Authority, getting into the oppressive, decadent world of the Southern Reach agency, a long slow burn with the “12th expedition” looming on the horizon. The Ghost Bird and Control chapters are more like Annihilation, though a bit faster, punchier—a return to Area X, with new revelations, new menacing phenomena, and a steady drive toward a mysterious objective. And the lighthouse keeper chapters feel completely new, with Saul Evans (the lighthouse keeper) being maybe the most normal character in the whole trilogy? I came to quite enjoy these chapters, settling into the small coastal town setting, getting to know Saul, and slowly seeing the gruesome shadow of apocalypse fall across everything.

However. The sum is less than the parts. Authority, the previous book in the series, was a very slow book, but I came to enjoy it, its immersive quality and careful consideration. The Director and Lighthouse Keeper chapters are, likewise, fairly slow, the characters don’t have big objectives, and they present worlds you really want to sit with. By contrast, the Ghost Bird and Control chapters are maybe the most action packed of the trilogy—if the books have been building up to anything it is these chapters, and you just want to keep reading, keep pushing deeper into Area X and closer to their goal. So the faster chapters break the immersive, slow-burn pacing of the slower chapters, and the slower chapters wreck the momentum of the faster ones.

And there’s no theme really unifying everything (other than I guess Reckoning with the Unknowable, which is a precondition of any Weird fiction.) The Director’s sections are a further development of the themes of Authority, Control and Ghost Bird are both adapting to a radically new world in different ways, while the Lighthouse Keeper affords us the greatest view, albeit still quite small, into the origins of Area X. All interesting ideas that I was excited to dive into, but it doesn’t feel like they’re in conversation. You could say all of the characters arrive at a state of acceptance, but the ways they get there and what they have to struggle with to do so are completely different—and it feels like the Control and Ghost Bird chapters are the only ones that give the theme of acceptance the amount of attention you’d expect, given its the title of the book.

With that said, all of these threads do feel quite appropriate for the end of the trilogy. Ending a series like this, which is so open and strange by nature, so resistant to definitive victories or even definitive death, is difficult, but VanderMeer pulls it off. Each character has their own momentous ending sequence, and their own small denouement, which reveal a little bit more about Area X and how the character in question has changed.

The book also has what seems to me the most explicit commentary on climate change in the whole trilogy, with the end of the Ghost Bird narrative. I mean I’m kind of a nail that sees hammers everywhere when it comes to climate change themes, but Area X and VanderMeer’s work in general is definitely concerned with the relationship between human beings and all the other life on earth, and Acceptance is especially interested in apocalypse, so lines like this just pierced right through my heart and stayed there:

“How could the sun be so oppressive and yet the scene so unbearably beautiful?”

I’ll finish this review by saying that, again, all the individual components are fantastic, but they don’t complement each other, and could be read completely separate from one another without losing much. This is probably my least favorite of the trilogy, though the individual stories each provide a good close to the series, as closed as Weird fiction can get.

Okay, actually, I’ll close out by saying this, about the trilogy as a whole: I can’t really separate myself personally from it. That’s true with any book, but I have a strong fondness for these books for sorta personal reasons. I mean, for a start, the setting is (is based on? no, it is as far as I’m concerned) the area of the Gulf Coast that I grew up around, the beaches and parks I’ve went to all throughout my childhood and adolescence. Annihilation rings true as a Floridian book in a very deep way, below the surface. Anyone can namedrop Publix and talk about humidity, but the Southern Reach trilogy is deeply rooted in the ecology of Florida—both human and non-human. As well, the books are difficult to place, in terms of genre, they dispense with a lot of elements that are normally taken for granted in book writing, especially in more commercial fiction, especially in genre fiction. Annihilation has hardly any character development, Authority has scarcely any plot. So for me, a writer who doesn’t really know how to place his own stuff all the time, it’s very heartening to see such a weird—in all senses of the word—trilogy, to see someone writing about Florida and climate change in a way that isn’t just Hoot or whatever. I love the trilogy, but I also love the fact that it even exists, and I’ve loved working my way through it over the past four years. I’d recommend Annihilation to anyone, and if you’ve enjoyed the first two books you should absolutely read the third.

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