Surrealist Circus Animals

Ned Beauman

  • Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
    Fourth Estate, 323 pp, £12.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 00 815917 7

What kind of emotions will we have after the end of the world? When we’re fighting over cans of dog food in the shadow of half-collapsed overpasses, will we observe, in Nietzsche’s words, ‘how differently the human drives have grown and still could grow depending on the moral climate’? The American writer Jeff VanderMeer seems to dangle two possible answers to this question, and it is at some cost to the distinctiveness of his work that in the end he chooses neither.

VanderMeer has been publishing fiction with magazines and small presses since the early 1980s, but made his commercial breakthrough in 2014 with the Southern Reach trilogy. These three novels concern an eponymous government agency investigating a stretch of Florida coastline that has been annexed by some kind of supernatural force. (A film adaptation, directed by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman, is due for release next year.) Much of the critical discussion of the trilogy has presented it as an achievement in nature writing; a review on, for instance, was headlined ‘The Weird Thoreau’. However, VanderMeer’s descriptions of forest and beach and marsh, though offered in faultlessly precise and rhythmic prose, are seldom striking enough to leave much of an impression on a reader who, like me, doesn’t really care about scenery. In fact, what’s most interesting about Annihilation, the first, shortest and best book in the trilogy, is the merciless psychological acuteness of the narrator as she plays power games with the three other women who have accompanied her on an expedition into ‘Area X’. The rustling background of nature only serves to emphasise the pettiness, and the ubiquity, of such dramas. In other words, Annihilation is really about office politics, and indeed the subsequent book, Authority, leaves the wilderness behind in favour of a story set almost entirely within the Southern Reach’s dysfunctional headquarters.

VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne, is not about an office, but it is a sequel of sorts to a 2008 short story, ‘The Situation’, which is. ‘The Situation’ concerns various employees of a biotech firm known only as the Company. Like Annihilation, it’s a tremendous piece of fiction, with something of George Saunders’s dystopian workplace tragicomedies, but slathered in a layer of goo. At the Company, meeting minutes are

taken by a veined slab of purpling meat whimsically shaped like an ear. This minutes-taker lay in a far corner of the room, on a raised dais, and printed out its observations on the usual paper that reflected mood, tone, and intent. Alas, in this particular case, the minutes came out thick, viscous, and smelling sickly sweet. Very little could be intuited from them.

The protagonist is not perturbed by the minutes-taker itself, but by the imprecise minutes leading to draggy progress on his assigned project (which is to design a huge, child-swallowing fish).

The story sustains its basic Kafkaesque joke very effectively: although human beings can accustom themselves to any physical horror, the emotional degradations of hierarchy and bureaucracy, the loneliness of the striver whose nearest friends are also his nearest rivals, are inescapable. Until he quit his day job in 2007, VanderMeer worked as a technical writer, and he dedicates the story ‘to all of the passive-aggressive emotional vampires, cowardly blunderkinds, narcissistic sociopaths, and incompetent power-abusing managers currently lurking amongst unsuspecting office workers everywhere’.

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