‘Authority’ takes readers to world in which they have no control

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If “Annihilation,” Jeff VanderMeer’s first installment in his curious, eerily attractive trilogy, was about procedure, “Authority” is about psychology. More focused on the individual than “Annihilation,” it affirms Mr. VanderMeer’s mastery of the queasy as it tracks John Rodriguez’s evolution in both institutional and human terms.

By Jeff VanderMeer
FSG Originals $15.

Rodriguez is Control, the new head of the Southern Reach, an opaque government agency bent on baring the secrets of Area X, a mysterious territory off all of the grids that is part geographical, part animal.

Area X, always just beyond the border, has swallowed up 12 Southern Reach expeditions save for a few survivors with whom Rodriguez engages. What is there about Area X that makes it a point of no return? “Authority” begins to hint at the answer.

What constitutes authority also is an overriding concern here; how Rodriguez asserts his, and how he grows into it almost against his will, is key to the book’s arc. It’s a tough one to navigate.

The depth of engagement between Rodriguez and the people he’s in charge of varies, and Rodriguez gets no help from Grace, the assistant director, who resents him and awaits the return of the director from the 12th expedition. Lowry and Whitby, Southern Reach apparatchiks who remain elusive and, in Whitby’s case, actually shift shape, also stymie him.

Shape shifting, in fact, is key to the tug of Mr. VanderMeer’s strange trilogy, which will conclude in September with publication of “Acceptance.” Without giving too much away, the ending of “Authority” begs for conclusion. It also suggests that the personal that is its focus will be ever more emphasized. Could a romance be in the cards?

Back to the novel at hand.

Like the virtually unreachable Area X itself, Whitby is hard for Rodriguez to bring into focus. Little seems solid to Rodriguez, who also finds that Central, the administrative heart of the Southern Reach, is the true authority. That Central means something personal to Control is part of the mystery Mr. VanderMeer builds so smoothly.

These books are indeed strange: While the notion of an undiscovered and threatening country that drives them is intriguing, the action is incremental, the root of this fiction — what Mr. VanderMeer might call its terroir — is atmosphere rather than narrative.

These are not thrillers in the conventional sense; rather, they’re a kind of science fiction in which readers are required to suspend their disbelief. While no such world as Area X exists — as far as we know — Mr. VanderMeer makes such a place plausible.

He does that, in part, by humanizing Rodriguez, locating him in Hedley, a seedy town where Control lives a fairly conventional life: eating, drinking, making the occasional sexual, if not altogether fulfilling, connection. So Mr. VanderMeer is slowly developing characters.

Besides Rodriguez, there’s the biologist, a survivor of the 12th expedition with whom Rodriguez has a relationship that starts prickly but evolves into something kinder; there’s Rodriguez’s mother, who plays a key, if enigmatic, administrative role; there’s Grace, a kind of saboteur who prefers an older order; and there’s the Voice, giving Rodriguez orders from Central.

“He already imagined the Voice as a megalodon or other leviathan,” Rodriguez muses, “situated in a think tank filled with salt water in some black-op basement so secret and labyrinthine that no one now remembered its purpose even as they continued to re-enact its rituals. A sink tank, really. Or a stink tank. Control doubted the Voice or his mother would find that worth a chuckle.”

Don’t forget to track Ghost Bird, the biologist who narrated “Annihilation.” The bond she and Control forge is a gnarly one, and neither character is easy to picture even though their emotional lives are skillfully developed. At the end, Mr. VanderMeer manages a neat trick: He builds the suspense so patiently, all readers can do is plunge into the Southern Reach themselves.

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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