It is impossible, in my eyes, to read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy without thinking of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It is not so much because of the similar tropes – the exploration team, the perception problems, the deep hole, etc. – but because of a deeper, darker link, which only becomes obvious once both books are finished: Fiction.
Both works use it and deal with it, but where Danielewski metaphorizes it in an object (a book), VanderMeer remarkably refuses to do the same. VanderMeer, on the contrary, leaves fiction be as a “state” experienced both by the characters and the readers. Fiction in the “Southern Reach” is the very fabric of the novel. In a way, one could say, that is the visible fabric of the invisible fabric, and vice-versa – as, like Area X, its borders are uncertain and keep expanding.
This trilogy appears at a very important time, when academics from all sides try to define “Fiction”, “Fictionality” and “Genre”. This desperate need to control an ever-fleeing territory is beautifully illustrated in “The Southern Reach” by the generic names of the characters – the biologist, the psychologist, Control, etc. – and the impossibility of their task.
What makes things interesting regarding Fiction is that the purpose of the tasks given to each character goes directly against the overall mission, which is to “understand” Area X. The vagueness of each mission, as well as their results, the strange consequences, the paranoid secrecy destroy any gain that could come out of these expeditions. In a way, like with the old Lovecraftian trope, trying to read “Area X” will make you go insane, as with the Necronomicon.
But although the Lovecraftian element is there – especially if one thinks of “The Colour Out of Space” – there is absolutely no mystique in “The Southern Reach”, no old gods or secret rites. Although it might sound unimportant, I think, on the contrary, that it is essential. The “Southern Reach” is not about beliefs, nor does it offer a new mythical explanation of everything – it is, only and solely, about “Area X”, which is precisely the ultimate non-explanation. Or rather – although there is an explanation – it doesn’t change anything.
And this is radically new – it places The Southern Reach in a no-place, that is to say in-between genres and Fiction categorizations, like Kafka, Borges and Burroughs. It is, therefore, purely literature and purely Fiction – an “Area X” in itself. It is a radical attempt and success in re-shuffling the old literary cards and inventing new rules. What we need now is to invent new names for the game – or do we, really?