In Area X, human faces wash up on the shore like the discarded shells of horseshoe crabs and dolphins swim in perfectly synchronized pairs and look out at you from hauntingly familiar eyes. A strange being known only as “The Crawler” travels up and down the stairs of an underground tower, writing on the walls in words that are revealed under a microscope to be formed of some sort of golden moss. Otherworldly phenomena like the “shimmer,” which indicates a sort of membrane between Area X and the regular world, are amalgamations of the concrete and the unimaginable, physical artifacts that defy comprehension.
The careful, exacting strangeness of these images sticks in the mind like a burr, stirring unexpectedly in your consciousness many days after reading. For this reason, VanderMeer’s novels exert a persuasive “reality effect” all their own. The phantasmagoric creatures and places can be difficult to find in mainstream literary fiction — where nature often appears as ornament, as atmosphere, as a backdrop to unfolding human drama. Like Melville and Thoreau, who invested their descriptions of early American wilds with an expansive vitalistic otherness, VanderMeer stages encounters with a nonhuman world that refuses to yield the foreground. This gesture takes on new significance in a time of ecological crisis and climate catastrophe: It reinscribes the fullness of the world we live in, an urgent reminder of how much life we stand to lose.
VanderMeer, who is in his early 50s and has a neatly-trimmed graying goatee, wore waders and a windbreaker in deference to the quick-changing weather of this rainy patch of Florida coastline. He laughs easily but not at length, and his intelligence has a restless quality, moving swiftly from one thing to the next. Quiet and friendly, he spoke in quick, clipped sentences as he showed me around the western reach of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, an ecological hub bordering the Gulf of Mexico that contains many different habitats —from pine flatwoods and sandhills to swamp forest and open water— and ranks in the top 10 in the nation for biodiversity. Though Everglades National Park is 22 times its size, the density of rare and endangered species in St Marks is nine times greater.
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