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 newyorker.com, 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’.

‘The Situation’ and the early stages of the Southern Reach trilogy are not pre-apocalyptic so much as peri-apocalyptic, a frog-boiling middle stage between normality and doom. By the time of Borne, the Company’s various inventions, let slip across a blighted landscape, have made a significant contribution to the sorry state of things. And in the Southern Reach trilogy, it is suggested that if the rest of the planet is swallowed up like the northern coast of Florida, we can put some of the blame on the government itself, which may have had something to do with the creation of Area X in the first place. In other words, the tile-carpeted, air-conditioned office is where VanderMeer locates the seeds of destruction. This is the case not just literally – because we all know that in science fiction every single research lab or testing facility is a Pandora’s Box waiting to burst its shoddy latch – but in a broader sense, too: the sheer resilience of human drudgery means that, even as we are in the act of unleashing armageddon on the world, we are still mostly thinking about our quarterly performance review. In Borne, the characters eventually return to the ruins of the Company, just as, in Acceptance, the third book of the Southern Reach trilogy, the characters eventually return to the ruins of the Southern Reach headquarters. Given the dedication quoted above, one might be tempted to diagnose a bit of wish-fulfilment on VanderMeer’s part, but in both cases he makes sure the comeuppance is thoroughly deserved.

I mentioned the dedication in an email to VanderMeer’s publicist asking if she knew what sorts of jobs had inspired it, and in response she relayed an email from VanderMeer in which he not only satisfied my curiosity but also took pains to clarify that ‘The Situation’ and Borne ‘are not meant to be read together’. The story is not a direct prologue to the novel, he said, but rather ‘a proto-Borne story, like from an alternate universe’. But I didn’t know that when I was reading them, and to anyone but the author the distinction may seem rather Talmudic, because at least a couple of characters from ‘The Situation’ reappear in Borne. One of them, Mord, was introduced to us in the Company’s offices as a human being but has now been transformed into a gigantic flying bear, ‘the de facto ruler of our city’. The novel begins when the narrator, a young woman called Rachel, is picking through Mord’s matted fur while he’s asleep, and discovers a strange creature ‘like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid’. She takes the creature home, names him Borne, and teaches him to talk. Feeding on lizards and rats, Borne grows larger and larger, causing some tension with Wick, Rachel’s flatmate-with-benefits and another former Company employee. But when invaders begin to threaten their sanctuary, adventures must ensue.

The novel is thronged with chimeras: as well as Mord there are other, smaller bears with venomous fangs, and foxes who can turn invisible, and a gang of ‘poisoned half-changed children’ with ‘iridescent carapaces’ and ‘gossamer wings’. VanderMeer evokes all these beings with real skill; a scene where Mord is attacked by surface-to-air missiles is a masterclass in IMAX prose. But I suspect VanderMeer’s favourite of them is Borne himself, because he least resembles any known original.

Not long after Rachel brings Borne home, he has

abandoned the sea-anemone shape in favour of resembling a large vase or a squid balanced on a flattened mantel. The aperture at the top had curled out and up on what I chose to interpret as a long neck, sprouting feathery filaments … [which] with a prolonged soft sigh, would crowd together and then pull apart again like bizarre synchronised dancers … Colours still flitted across his body, or lazily floated in shapes like storm clouds, ragged and layered and dark.

Compare, from Acceptance, this description of a monster called the Crawler:

The surface of its roughly bell-shaped body was translucent but with a strange texture, like ice when it has frozen from flowing water into fingerlike polyps. Underneath a second surface slowly revolved, and across this centrifuge she could see patterns floating along, as if it had an interior skin, and the material on top of that might be some kind of soft armour.

There’s a lot more where that came from. VanderMeer begs, and I would say earns, the indulgence of his readers here, in lavishing so much prose on the shapes and textures of these imaginary beasts that it verges on a kind of abstract daubing. Indeed, writing like this may find its closest analogue in the work of artists like Louise Bourgeois and Berlinde de Bruyckere, whose biomorphic sculptures you can imagine waddling into VanderMeer’s books like teratomas given life – foreskins and intestines and folds of fat appreciated for their unsettling material properties, with no affiliation to any particular organism. Borne, under Rachel’s care, soon evolves into a surrealist circus animal; at one point, ‘so many eyestalks arose from him that his body flattened away to nothing, into an irregular pool of flesh across most of the roof, the edge lapping up against my boots.’

What would become of our inner lives in a world like this? It may be that, when late capitalist civilisation is replaced by this violently mutagenic landscape, we should expect our familiar configuration of ‘human drives’ to warp into a commensurately novel form. But then again, because we’ve seen in VanderMeer’s earlier fiction that a chronic smallness of mind can persist in even the most extreme circumstances, perhaps we should expect that office politics would pass almost unchanged into bunker politics or shanty politics. Or – to consider a third option, extraneous to VanderMeer’s work but common enough in the kind of post-apocalyptic stories that make a fetish of big ‘manly’ characters – perhaps we should expect a radical simplification, so that people would only be vengeful, protective, greedy and so forth, with any subtler shades of feeling blasted away like soft tissue in the flames of an atom bomb.

Any of these three emotional registers would have been fun in its own way. Unfortunately, VanderMeer’s narrator instead offers us a fourth register: what might be called a literary one. ‘I told myself whatever lie would work. Because I needed a lie.’ ‘It made me reckless, as if I wanted Wick to confront me.’ ‘Perhaps deep down [I] thought that without Borne there, Wick had no right to say where [I] wandered or did not wander.’ ‘Perhaps that was my subconscious revenge: if he wanted to be an adult, I’d make him become an adult all the way.’ ‘Perhaps the real reason Wick and I believed we were finished is that we both, on some subconscious level, understood that the quest to make the Balcony Cliffs safe was futile.’ And so on.

This is the contemporary psychotherapeutic vernacular, in which a narrator, like a contrite guest on a daytime talk show, explains away all her aberrant or irresponsible behaviour in terms of ‘personal issues’. The audience murmurs in sympathy and in appreciation of this universalisable wisdom about the human condition. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this stuff – it’s present in some form in most good fiction. But to find Rachel’s consciousness delineated in such an earnest, familiar, ‘relatable’ fashion means that VanderMeer has dodged both of the promising approaches that his work may have led us to anticipate.

First of all, there is no hypermutation of the human drives. At one stage, Rachel, the narrator, discusses ‘the wrenching dislocation of trying to make two separate worlds match up, the one that was normal and the one that was grotesque, the old and the new – the struggle to make the mundane and the impossible co-exist’. In this novel, physical reality is always new, grotesque and impossible, and mental reality is always old, normal and mundane. VanderMeer has been one of the chief boosters of a putative genre called ‘the New Weird’, and edited, along with his wife, Ann, a major anthology called The Weird – but nothing could be less weird than these characters, despite the curious costumes they wear.

The only glimmer of psychological deviancy we detect in Rachel is that she develops loving maternal feelings towards Borne, as if he were a human child. But because Borne is so cutesy – when Rachel is teaching him to talk, he yelps nonsense like ‘Buffoon! Foon buff! Buffalo balloon! Buffaloon’ – we get no more frisson of the unheimlich from this than we do from the relationship between Elliott and E.T. in the Spielberg film. Borne himself initially appears to have some potential, because of the odd modalities in which his moods are expressed (‘He’d gone rough and prickly beside me, and a faint snuffed match/grain-alcohol smell wafted over’). When we read extracts from his diary, however, we find that he’s given to writing things like ‘I didn’t want to move out of Rachel’s apartment. But I had to … On my own, maybe things will be better. Maybe I can be the one in control.’ So even tentacled changelings from a bizarro future have inner voices remarkably similar to those of early 21st-century bourgeois humans.

Borne does reveal a darker side about halfway through the book, but because this darker side is pursued off-stage, involving characters we haven’t met, it never succeeds in tainting our view of him. What really separates Borne from the creations of artists like Bourgeois and de Bruyckere – and of David Cronenberg, whom VanderMeer has noted as a major influence – is that the rank odours of sex and disease are what give body horror its potency. In comparison, VanderMeer’s menagerie can feel rather antiseptic, not to mention symbolically freightless. Surely I won’t be the only reader left with the feeling that Borne would have been more interesting if Rachel and Borne had gone to bed together.

So VanderMeer doesn’t give us any newfound emotional configurations, but neither does he return to the older emotional configurations of which he has already proven himself such a wise observer. Admittedly, Borne doesn’t have enough characters to stock an office, but if the book contains one flight of fancy even wilder than a titanic bear who can ‘dip and glide and wheel and drop across the sky like a god’, it’s that Rachel and Wick seem to live together in close quarters for all that time without a single argument about cleaning the bathroom. Nobody believes the collapse of civilisation will rid us of the passive-aggressive emotional vampires and narcissistic sociopaths – on the contrary, they will outlast even the proverbial cockroach. The blunting that takes place between ‘The Situation’ and Borne is reminiscent of the one that takes place over the course of the Southern Reach trilogy; there, the expedition through Area X in Acceptance, the third book, is substantially less engaging than the one in Annihilation, the first book, because the higher stakes in Acceptance lead the characters to behave more like adults with a common purpose.

One of Borne’s messages seems to be that even in nightmarish and baffling conditions, human beings are capable of love and courage. But in all but the surest hands, this insight is moral kitsch. Whereas the countervailing fact that even in nightmarish and baffling conditions, human beings are capable of resentment, backbiting, idleness and so forth, while not front-page news, gave Annihilation and ‘The Situation’ the spark of life. Now, this may be a matter of personal taste, and I am willing to consider the hypothesis that there is a correlation between people who think that extended descriptions of verdant nature are usually dull (see above) and people who think that extended descriptions of wholesome emotions are usually dull. But nevertheless I maintain that VanderMeer’s work is much less interesting post-apocalypse than it was pre- or peri-apocalypse, and in this regard he breaks the first rule of the genre: the audience must never find themselves wishing in any serious way that the world hadn’t ended.