Friday, November 2, 2018
On Jeff VanderMeer and material monsters: Did we ever know anything about the world at all?
BY BENJAMIN J. ROBERTSON
University of Colorado Boulder
In None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, I focus on the fantastic materialities VanderMeer creates in his major fiction: the Veniss milieu, in which a good portion of his early fiction takes place; the city of Ambergris, which takes shape in City of Saints and Madmen (2001 – 04), Shriek: An Afterword (2006), and Finch (2009); Area X, the motivating force behind the Southern Reach trilogy (2014); and the Earth of Borne (2017) and The Strange Bird (2017). These materialities are impossible according to the norms we take for granted in our own world. In other words, they are fantastic, created, fictional. VanderMeer’s materialities can, of course, help us understand our own. They are products of a writer working in a specific place (the United States) at a specific moment (the early twenty-first century). Close attention to the historical situation in which these materialities emerge no doubt reveals something about that historical situation and the manner in which it determines what we think and how we act. For example, Area X can be productively read in the context of climate change and the Anthropocene. In such a reading, this alien place suggests a return of the repressed, the revenge of nature upon a humanity that has ignored and exploited it for far too long.
However, I find that these materialities can do more than represent our world. They can intervene in it when we understand that they have a force of their own, a force particular to fiction. In my reading, Area X cannot stand in for climate change or the Anthropocene because these human terms suggest an attempt to draw a boundary around an object that cannot be delimited by human knowledge practices. Such practices seek to create an other opposed to the self, each bound to its opposite by way of a universalizing liberalism that guarantees that the unknown can be known, that the different can become the same. However, Area X escapes every attempt to draw it into human knowledge practices because it exists at scales that cannot be indexed to such practices. It is, in my terms, abdifferent—not a thing whose difference could give way to sameness, but a thing that flees from all difference and the knowledge practices that produce it. Area X suggests a reading practice appropriate for VanderMeer’s fantastic materialities. This reading practice does not require that every fiction reference our own world. It allows fictions to be fictions, the fantastic to be fantastic. To engage with such a practice, we do not need to stop caring about our own world. Rather we must understand how fictions participate in our world, that they can do more than simply reflect it back to us. As I write, this reading practice “involves imagining conditions that afford new ways of thinking and that do not assume a stable, grounding reality. To fantasize, or fictionalize, materiality does not mean to abandon oneself to fantasy but to abandon the fantasy that we always already are able to know and are able to question such knowing.”
VanderMeer's short story “This World is Full of Monsters” exhibits many of the concerns that VanderMeer’s readers will recognize from his previous fiction: the necessity of transformation, the relationship of writer to world, the end of human civilization, the failure of human knowledge techniques, and so on. However, more so than any of VanderMeer’s fiction to date, “This World is Full of Monsters” offers a materiality in which stories are more than stories, more than representations: they are living things, they are forces of transformation, they are monsters. Horror reveals to us how our knowledge of the world and the stories we tell ourselves about our places in the world will always fail because the world is not a story, because materiality is not amenable to our knowledge or narratives. To this end, horror deploys monsters that demonstrate (these two terms are etymologically related to one another). The monsters of traditional horror reveal to us what we don’t know despite all of our science, what we cannot know precisely because our science has limited the scope of knowing itself. Thus when the werewolf returns from our animal past, or the vampire appears as a reminder of a dead aristocracy that continues to threaten the bourgeois order, or zombies manifest out of the remnants of a failing consumer society no story about what they are or what they mean will save us. If our knowledge could not account for them before they (re)appeared, what chance does it have now?
Here we discover the limitations of such monstrosity. These monsters, despite their impossibility, each represent some aspect of the world as we know it. We know there are no werewolves, but we accept the presence of the werewolf in horror insofar as it might represent something about our own world to us, insofar as it suggests our relationship to a pre-modern past we might otherwise wish to forget. Is such a fiction the best vehicle for such a suggestion? Is such a fiction an adequate representation of this relationship? Is this relationship even real, or is it a function of the fiction itself? When we ask horror fictions, or any fictions, to refer to the world in a meaningful way, or when we ask monsters to show us how our world works, we quickly and invariably run into questions about whether we ever knew anything about the world at all, whether we ever knew it in and of itself or whether what we know of it only comes to us through our representations of it. This issue becomes all the more urgent in a moment when the greatest crisis facing humanity’s continued existence on this planet, the forces unleashed by the Anthropocene, escape our every effort to represent them to a human-scaled subject that takes itself as the measure of all things.
In contrast to the traditional monsters of horror, the story-creature at the center of “This World is Full of Monsters” does not represent anything. It is not “about” anything. Rather, it is an active force that drives the transformation of the narrator-writer and creates for him a position in a world where he no longer fits. “Monsters” begins when the story-creature appears on the doorstep of the narrator-writer: “The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.” If we understand that the story-creature does not represent anything, we can immediately grasp the strangeness of the first sentence. The rest of this passage makes clear that “story,” in this context, does not refer to a fictional representation of the real or even to the creation of a narrative. However, the first sentence is even more revealing when we understand that “meant” does not involve any latent content, any hidden message that must be interpreted to be revealed. “Meant” does not refer to the possibility of knowing something outside of what has been written here. Instead, it refers to what the story will cause, what the story will do.
The story invades the body and mind of the narrator-writer, eventually causing him to sleep for one hundred years. When he wakes up, he does so to a transformed world in which he no longer has a place. Without a place, without a meaning, he seeks to end his existence. “This World is Full of Monsters” becomes a meditation on the problem of memory, but not in any conventional sense. The problem of memory here has little to do with the adequacy of memory to actual events. Rather, it has to do with how memory prevents us from adjusting to new situations, how memory creates meanings at odds with material facts. Late in “Monsters,” the narrator-writer confronts a strange being in this transformed world: “He communicated to me that the world had been remade against my image and that my form, even much reduced, was the rebellion of the old world against the new, and that this made no sense because the new world embraced the old; that my very presence made the old world manifest, no matter the form, so why was the form important? Why did I hold onto the form?” In one sense, the narrator-writer clings to his embodied form and thus refuses a physical transformation that would better afford his continued existence in the new world, a world no longer amenable to human being or meaning. In another sense, however, the narrator-writer clings to the form known as story, the form through which human beings make meaning out of materiality by representing it this or that way—sometimes in ways that obscure the very materiality they seek to understand. If it appears that VanderMeer himself still clings to this form, to the story, such is only the case because we insist on reading “This World is Full of Monsters,” or any of his fictions, as attempts to adequately capture some aspect of our own materiality. Such is only the case because we fail to understand how these stories might instead have some material effect on the world itself.
None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer and coeditor of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.
"None of This Is Normal is the first book-length study of the weird fiction of Jeff VanderMeer. Benjamin J. Robertson not only highlights the beauty and power of VanderMeer's fiction, but also shows how this writing is central to any attempt to think through the plight of humanity in what has come to be called the Anthropocene."
—Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism
"This spirited book disturbs the new normal of the Anthropocene by way of the ‘New Weird’ in Jeff VanderMeer's fiction. At once a meditation on fantastic materiality and a step toward life after aftermath, this first dedicated study of VanderMeer tells a new story about humans and nonhumans both."
—Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University