There Are No Choices, Except to Give In – A Review of Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

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Most adults expect to be able to choose. The opportunity to choose, to be able to decide for oneself what course to take, is such a deeply-ingrained right that it forms the concept of “rights” in the first place. The most depraved and deplorable conditions often involve having no choice at all: slavery, for example, or extreme poverty. For some people, choosing death is preferable than living out the rest of their lives in circumstances not of their choosing.

So there is something truly, genuinely terrifying about being confronted with an absolute absence of choice, of being forced to submit and accept what one is given. The most pleasant, uplifting narratives – the stories most people enjoy – always involve not giving up, not yielding, not submitting to the inevitable. These narratives emphasise the idea that, if one tries hard enough, if one has enough willpower, then one might, indeed, change a specific course of events by struggling against it as hard as one can.

Because of that, there is something truly frightening about its opposite, and this is something horror writers are keenly aware of, and they make use of it from time to time in their stories. H.P. Lovecraft was a master at this sort of horror: many of his stories involve the narrator coming to some horrific realisation and doing absolutely nothing to fight it, choosing instead to give in rather than fight the inevitable. Other writers who have followed in Lovecraft’s footsteps have chosen to do the same: oftentimes these characters commit suicide rather than face what is to come, since a death of their choosing is the only true choice they have left, and they would much rather make it than for their manner of dying to be chosen by someone – or something – else.

It is this same sort of fear that Jeff VanderMeer plays with in Acceptance, the last novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Following hot on the heels of events in Authority, Acceptance follows multiple paths: Saul, the enigmatic lighthouse keeper who used to live in the area now known as Area X; the Director of the Southern Reach; and Ghost Bird and Control, who were last seen in the concluding events of Authority determined to make their way back to Area X and figure out what is going on once and for all.

As with Authority, Acceptance breaks from the narrative conventions set in the novel before it. Authority has two narrative styles: third-person limited for Saul, Ghost Bird, and Control’s stories, and second-person for the Director. While the choice of third-person limited makes sense as a narrative style (it’s the most common style currently used in fiction), the choice of second-person for the Director – and only the Director – is rather unusual.

However, it’s clear that this was a carefully-considered choice: after all, VanderMeer’s a good-enough writer to know why and what he’s doing when he makes a stylistic decision in his writing, and I think there’s a very good reason for going with the unusual second-person perspective for the Director.

Of all the figures in the novels thus far, the Director has proven the most mysterious: her connection to Area X and the many various coverups and shady projects she was involved in while at the Southern Reach all make her a character of interest to the reader. Some readers may have come to believe, after the first two novels, that understanding the Director means unraveling the mystery behind Area X once and for all – and in a way, those readers are right. By choosing to write the Director’s side of the story from the second-person perspective, the reader must comprehend the Director’s decisions as if they were the reader’s own, as if the reader is taking responsibility for everything the Director does. And when one gradually comes to understand just what, precisely, the Director has – or has not – done, a true sense of horror is created.

Even worse, the reader is forced to watch, unable to do anything to change the Director’s course, to accept her decisions as if they were the reader’s own, to submit entirely to the will of this person who is making choices and decisions that the reader absolutely cannot change. The reader has no choice but to accept – and that is a terrifying prospect indeed, all things considered.

But what makes this so terrifying is that it’s so easy to slip into the Director’s skin, to accept that the reader has temporarily become this person who is, essentially, a stranger. But she is not a stranger: her personal trials and tribulations are familiar to the reader: dissatisfaction with one’s job, that feeling of being trapped by one’s superiors, even things like cancer – all of these things are familiar, relatable things. She is a regular person caught up in most irregular circumstances – and while that might sound funny, might be the root of some joke, in this case, it’s very much not funny.

Saul’s storyline will likely ring a few bells for some people, thought whether or not that’s a good thing is a bit of a question. This storyline is more traditionally Lovecraftian that the others in the novel, or even in the other books: the forgotten coast and its residents all read a bit like other seaside towns mentioned in Lovecraft’s works, albeit with a lot less fog and fewer “batrachian” references. However, though it might most clearly reference “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” on the surface, at it’s core it’s most clearly “The Colour Out of Space” in terms of its storyline. This isn’t immediately made clear, though sharp readers or those who are intimately familiar with Lovecraft’s works will probably pick it up as soon as a crucial event in the novel happens. Once the reader reaches that point, or once they recognise the similarities thanks to clues scattered in the rest of the novel, the link become clear – and, at least for me, quite enjoyable. I liked the parallels I saw between the two stories, and while I appreciate the parallelisms, some readers have expressed some small disappointment at the similarities.

Regardless, it must be said that any reader can readily appreciate the personal touches in Saul’s storyline: his relationship with Charlie, for instance, and his friendship with Gloria, the little girl who would one day grow up to become the Director of the Southern Reach. His being a relatable human being in pretty much all his aspects is the most enjoyable part of his storyline, quite apart from the fact that I personally find it a pretty well-told horror story on its own. This is, most definitely, one of VanderMeer’s strengths, and it was pleasant to read about Saul’s going through the everyday pleasures of his life, and it was rather saddening – and scary – to watch him lose it.

As for Ghost Bird and Control, their stories are intertwined. To be sure, the stories of Saul and the Director are intertwined, but Ghost Bird and Control are special because they were together at the end of the second novel. It is through them, and later Grace, the Director’s assistant and confidante from Authority, that the reader comes to understand the true, dual nature of Area X, the fact that it is neither good, nor evil – and that, at its core, it doesn’t really care. This is, again, a Lovecraftian trope, and VanderMeer once again handles it deftly to reveal a picture of cosmic horror that is very much in keeping with some of the best material Lovecraft created, but still remaining distinctly VanderMeer.

However, I find that I liked Ghost Bird’s narrative more than Control’s. There was something confusing and hazy about Control’s narrative, and it got worse as the novel went on. It’s pretty much the same problem I had with his narration in Authority: confusing enough that it’s rather easy to just glide over parts and not really miss much at all. The only thing that’s interesting about his narration is how he finally just yields, in the end, to everything that Area X is: how he just throws in the towel and accepts that he – and everything around him – has become pointless, and that everything will be remade.

In contrast to the murkiness of Control’s narrative, Ghost Bird’s is wonderfully lucid. To be sure, she doesn’t quite understand who or what she is at first, but she is determined to find out, and that determination acts like a guiding flame throughout her storyline. It rarely wavers, and while it does a number on Control’s psyche, I attribute that mostly to an inner weakness on Control’s part. Of course, Ghost Bird could have been more kind about it, I suppose, but then again I don’t think she could have. She might not be the Biologist, but a part of the Biologist is in her, and part of what makes the Biologist who she is is that single-minded focus – perhaps obsession – on one particular thing, and the ability to ignore everything and everyone else in favour of that one thing.

And now that I mention the Biologist, I really enjoyed that brief interlude explaining what happened to her when, at the end of Annihilation, she went off in search of her husband. It’s where a lot of things get explained, and while it doesn’t give all the answers to every single question a reader might have about what happens in the series, it does a good job of at least suggesting possible answers. I do wish, however, that it had been given its own entire storyline, in the same way that the Director, Saul, Ghost Bird and Control were given their own storylines. I think it would have allowed for a subtler reveal of the information given by the Biologist, as well as add a certain amount of nuance to Ghost Bird’s quest for identity. After all, she herself says that she is not the Biologist, but it would have been nice to have a narrative against which the reader could contrast that statement.

There’s also the issue of Grace. She appears all throughout the novel, primarily in the Director’s storyline, but she puts in an appearance in Ghost Bird and Control’s storylines, as well. At first her role is antagonistic, but it later becomes clear that she’s not an antagonist at all: simply someone whose goals don’t perfectly align with Ghost Bird’s or Control’s, and therefore might be viewed as a challenger to both their shared and individual goals. Given how important she turns out to be in understanding the Director and Area X, I found myself wishing that she’d gotten her own storyline, as well – maybe eliminate Control entirely and give over his narrative space to Grace. I would have liked to read about her own take about what happened in the Southern Reach, and about Area X, especially because she could have provided some interesting perspective.

Perhaps the biggest concern readers have about the novel is: are the answers here? To that I say: yes, they are – they just probably aren’t all there, or they take some digging and rereading to find, or they aren’t the answers one thought they would be. VanderMeer does not make it easy for his readers to find the answers to their questions – come to that, he doesn’t even answer all of them. What he does, though, is give the answers they need, and a starting point to finding the answers they want. It’s not easy, of course – at this point in the series the reader probably already knows that, or hsould – but they are there, for the reader willing to take their time to find them. I appreciate that, actually: the trust VanderMeer has in his readers to be smart enough and patient enough to go through his work, more than once, if necessary, to find what they need and want. It’s great when a writer places such faith in the intelligence of their readers, and writes accordingly.

Overall, Acceptance is an intriguing conclusion to the Southern Reach Trilogy – one that has all the answers the reader could possibly need, but maybe not the ones they want, since there’s a big difference between the two. It’s also a return to the style and setting of the first novel, Annihilation, which will probably make quite a few people happy, but it’s not without some remnants of Authority: Control’s storyline, in particular, might be frustrating for some readers who were glad to leave that all behind in the second novel. I also found myself wishing that certain characters had been given a voice in place of Control: Grace, especially, would have made for an intriguing narrator, with the potential of a more nuanced understanding of other characters and certain key events in previous novels and in Acceptance itself.

The novel has some spectacular creepy moments of its own, but what is really, truly frightening about Acceptance – and what makes it an excellent, albeit not entirely unproblematic, conclusion to the series is encapsulated in the title. Sometimes, there is no such thing as a triumphant ending: there is only weary acceptance of the inevitable.

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