Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Book 7: Wherein I discuss a possible poltergeist and end up getting mad at Amazon reviewers.

I was one of those people who liked the ending of Lost. I know they didn't explain the island at all, and lots of the mysteries in the show went unexplained, but I kind of like that. I think sometimes explaining something makes it less mysterious, less frightening, less eerie.

I say that as someone who briefly thought perhaps he had a poltergeist in his house last night. I had gone upstairs to get something out of the closet, and while I was standing there in the hallway I was briefly farther away from the usual airport-level noise in our house, and I heard this little twitching or clicking. I traced the sound down to the bedroom that used to be The Boy's, and was supposed to now be Mr F's but he and Mr Bunches won't sleep in separate rooms, so it's just a bedroom.

The door was moving, just slightly, back and forth over and over and over, as though something were on the other side, trying to open it.

I watched it for a few seconds and ran over things in my mind. An animal? But I didn't hear any scratching and the door was moving too rhythmically, I thought. The wind?  It's January in Wisconsin, so we don't really open windows, and anyway the windows in every room but our bedroom are sealed shut with a variety of devices to keep Mr F from getting out them.

I stood there in the hallway for a minute or two more, and was really kind of enthralled and a little spooked.  It was exactly like someone on the other side... of the door... was trying to open it but they couldn't quite get a grasp of it.

"Sweetie," I called her.  "Come up here!"  I motioned her from the top of the stairs and told her to be quiet.  As she came up the stairs I pointed at the door and started to say something but she interrupted.

"Oh, the door," she said. "That happens when the boys are jumping on the ball."

I watched it disappointed, hearing Mr Bunches downstairs bouncing up and down on his exercise ball while he watched Thunderbirds. Sweetie showed me how when he stopped, the door stopped.

I'm not saying I would've been crazy about having a ghost in our house, but any explanation for that door was bound to be a disappointment: something mundane, like that, or an animal that had gotten in, or a breeze: whatever wasn't a ghost that caused the door to move would've been a disappointment because it wasn't as fantastic as I'd imagined.

That's why I liked the ending of Lost: It told what happened to those people, while not explaining the island at all, because honestly, what explanation could they have given that would've made it feel worthwhile? They were going to let down a whole lot of people explaining all of it, and better to let some people get mad while others could still wonder at what the island might be.

Last night, I finished Acceptance, which is the third book in Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, and the lesson of not explaining stuff was driven home again, as was the wisdom of never listening to book reviewers ever.

Acceptance, the whole trilogy, is what Vandermeer called weird fiction. It's sort of scifi, sort of fantasy, sort of horror, really a genre all its own, and it's a genre I really like.  The basic plot of the series undersells how great it is: "Area X" is a region of land that one day become enveloped in a barrier, one which makes anything that hits it disappear. There is an opening into Area X, and in the first book the 12th Expedition is just starting out its exploration of the area.

From there, the fate of the 12th expedition, and what happens next, fill out the rest of the book and the next 2. It's hard to say more without spoiling anything, and this isn't a book you want spoiled in any way.

The book itself doesn't feel like it's carrying any message greater than the personal: it's primarly an intriguing story chock full of interesting concepts, twists and turns, deceptions, excitement, and mysteries.  To the extent that Vandermeer has anything more on his mind than "here's a great story, enjoy," the book seems to play around with the concept of identity: various characters go by different names, or are nameless, for different reasons, at different times, and Vandermeer deliberately muddies the humanity of some of the characters.  A major character in the 2nd two books, for example, is for most of the book a disembodied voice on a telephone, and the person he is calling keeps imagining "The Voice" as a variety of strange beings: a dinosaur living underground, for example.  This contrasts with there being actual monsters in the books, as well.

That personal level carries the book and makes it somehow grand in scope while being intense in viewpoint.  The fate of the entire world may be at stake -- it's not clear how much risk Area X poses-- but Vandermeer keeps the book focused on a small group of characters, making it seem at once as if Area X and the Southern Reach are the world, and at the same time increasing the sense of isolation while at the same time helping us feel attached to characters who sometimes don't even have names.  It's masterful, really.

And there are CREEPY scenes. I won't describe them too you, because they're too awesome, but there was at least one scene in each book that left me shuddering. I described one to Sweetie and she agreed it was one of the freakiest things she'd ever heard.  It's not horror, quite -- just really really really strange, so strange that it's hard to reconcile, at times, with anything that might make sense, and that's part of the sense of weirdness and fright: we're pretty far away from home, even though this is all taking place right on earth in sometimes mundane surroundings like a supply closet or government agency.

Even Vandermeer's use of language adds to the strangeness: he keeps referring to one thing in Area X as the "topographical anomaly," for example, while an area where samples from Area X is stored is called the 'cathedral.' Nothing seems quite to match up.

In the end, Vandermeer doesn't leave you as hanging, maybe, as Lost. It feels like everything is answered, but the answers aren't just laid out for you. You have to work for them, listening (I heard this on audiobook, which was a great way to do it) for details and paying attention and thinking about it.  Even then, there's a sense of ambiguity; I was telling Sweetie about the books and I kept saying I'm pretty sure this and I'm almost positive that.  It wasn't frustrating, though; it was work, but a fun kind of work, to put all the pieces in place.

The work pays off.  This is a book -- a series of books -- I'll probably never forget, and in fact just after I finished Acceptance I thought about going back immediately and re-reading the trilogy, putting my newfound perspective into play again to see if I could glean more from everything.

Which brings up my final point about these books:  People, and how much they suck. About a year ago, I had a gift card from Amazon and was browsing around for a book, and I came across this trilogy available as a set. I read the description and thought That sounds pretty good. Then I read a few reviews of it, and the reviews put me off buying the books.  Most people complained that everything wasn't laid out on a plate -- but that's not how they put it. They said stuff like mysteries are never explained and the like. I read the first book, Annihilation, on loan from the library because I was still curious, and then i was hooked.

I probably shouldn't be swayed by negative reviews. Most people come at reviews from their own perspectives, and my tastes are not like other people's.  A book like this is going to be a hard sell for some people, I suppose, but the reviews seem so wildly off the mark in retrospect that I've stopped reading Amazon review of books, period.  It's one thing to not like a book, but it's another entirely to not get it but still pan it, and I think most of the negative reviews I read were, in retrospect, people who didn't understand the book and didn't want to have to think their way through things. That's okay; I don't like many kinds of mysteries and mind-games and things that make me do stuff I'm not crazy about. So I don't read those kinds of books. Amazon maybe ought to rethink it's policy of letting just anybody post stuff.  It's people that give people a bad name.

Anyway, that's my rant. I don't want to get offtrack.  Sometimes life needs to be a little strange, and sometimes things are better if their insides are not laid bare and everything explained about them.  Jeff Vandermeer nailed that idea with these books.  Acceptance, the whole trilogy, is one of those rare gems of books that I would like to own. It's not for everybody, but if you like intriguing, strange, scifi-ish stories, these are worth reading.

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