This apocalyptic novel has only one charm, but it's a good one: the mystery of an underground "tower" with an interminable sentence written along one wall, in letters made of living moss. The sentence begins near the top and spirals down with the wall: Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that… As the story progresses, it makes a bit (but only a bit) more sense.
Unfortunately this intriguing scene is ruined by the novel's insufferable narrator-protagonist. Known only as "the biologist" (there are no personal names in the book), she is part of a four-person, government-sponsored team assigned to explore Area X, a place of indeterminate nature that lies beyond the bounds of normal civilization (presumably the explorers are still on our planet, but even that basic fact is unclear). The biologist has two narratorial vices: poor judgment and vagueness. She is always discussing her mental state. Her real interest is not in the odd landscape of Area X, but in her own gradually shifting psychological responses to Area X.
Novels can do anything, so in principle this internal focus is fine. But all narrators must follow Henry James's one rule for fiction: Be interesting. The biologist doesn't follow this rule. She cannot see clearly into her own soul. She cannot see much of anything, apart from the tower. Her observations of the territory and her recollections of the past (childhood, a failed marriage, the training prior to the mission) are blurry. There are a handful of exceptions to this general failure: the memory of a miniature ecosystem in her parents' backyard pool, her lonely and self-destructive behavior at late-night bars, her two descents into the tower, a rotting pile of notebooks in a lighthouse oubliette, a human-like glance from a leaping dolphin. Each of these scenes and actions is, like the unworldly script in the tower, drawn with precision. The remainder of the book is a jumble of half-imagined places and events, and unformed judgments. Everything is ambiguous: "suggestion," "something," and "somehow" are favored words; things and feelings are "a kind" of thing or "a sort" of some abstraction. Many pronouns lack certain referents, and many similes are half-baked.
But other phenomena could also result in 'premature dissolution of expeditions,' as our superiors put it, so we needed to test our stamina for that place. (Chapter 1)
That place? Why not simply the place?
[The boar's] features were somehow contorted, as if the beast was dealing with an extreme of inner torment. (Chapter 1)
Somehow is tolerable, for the animal is running at a far distance from the observer, but are there extremes of inner torment in such a creature?
The surveyor, meanwhile, just shrugged and would not answer the psychologist's question. The anthropologist nodded as if she agreed with me. The entrance to the tower leading down exerted a kind of presence, a blank surface that let us write so many things upon it. This presence manifested like a low-grade fever, pressing down on all of us. (Chapter 1)
It is odd to call an open doorway a kind of presence; odder to call that presence a blank surface; odder still to call this surface-presence a mild fever affecting an entire group of people simultaneously. In fact, it is an unpicturable jumble, a mixture of metaphors, a mess. Almost the entire book is like this. Later in Chapter 1 the biologist writes, "All of my thoughts came spilling out of my mouth, some final discharge from the state that had overtaken me." That is correct; the narrator lacks discrimination.
The vagueness is neither accidental nor unconscious, for it is part of the author's philosophical theme, the impossibility of true knowledge. Other contributions to the theme are the mysterious disaster that first created Area X, the present but (before the final chapter) hidden menace scribbling the moss-letters on the interior wall of the underground tower, several encounters with half-human or seemingly human vegetation and animals, and unexplained doppelgängers. In other words, the novel is coherent and consistent. But it is consistently invisible: it is hard to imagine a blurry landscape populated by characters without names or clear intentions and threatened by a monster known only by footprints. And unfortunately, we need to see something in this particular novel, because the author is not a poet. Finding an organic sentence on the wall of an underground tower is a pretty interesting situation, but every time the spell is cast, it is sure to be snapped by some glaring defect. One character actually compares the sentence in the tower to the Old Testament. Perhaps the critics are right that Cormac McCarthy writes "biblical" prose. Annihilation does not.
In the fifth chapter, the narrator has a mystical experience with the monster, "an encounter with the most beautiful, the most terrible thing." It is the climax of the book, and since it takes place in the most interesting part of Area X, I had high hopes. Here too the prose disappoints.
You understand, I could no more have turned back than have gone back in time. My free will was compromised, if only by the severe temptation of the unknown.
Have gone back in time is grammatical but barbarous; and really, free will? Why not will or I? Again, the problem is not the absence of explanation; the point of the novel is that explanation is not on offer. But if you are going to risk making the world of your apocalyptic novel largely invisible, you must at the very least keep control of your language.
Compounding the problem of the general blur are the narrator's many unearned inferences, which are usually (and conveniently) justified by the plot. The author is cheating. Similarly he likes to give his narrator semi-profound maxims: "There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you" (Chapter 2). "Sometimes you get a sense of when the truth of things will not be revealed by microscopes" (Chapter 2). "You can either waste time worrying about a death that might not come or concentrate on what's left to you" (Chapter 4). Bad stuff. I won't read the trilogy.