Review of None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer
Benjamin Robertson. None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Paperback, 208 pages, $19.95, ISBN 9781517902933.
Despite his long-standing critical and (following the publication of the Southern Reach trilogy) commercial success, scholarly attention to Jeff VanderMeer has so far been rather scant on the ground. None of This Is Normal comprises the first book-length study of VanderMeer’s weird fiction—Robertson notes in his introduction that, at the time of publication, there were only two other scholarly articles on VanderMeer’s fiction, both published in the same issue of Paradoxa.
This relative paucity of scholarly publications on VanderMeer is surprising: anyone who has attended a recent conference on a theme related to SF or fantasy will be aware of the popularity of, and evident critical consideration given to, VanderMeer’s fiction. (Indeed, Robertson acknowledges this unusual imbalance.) This attention forms part of a wider scholarly interest in the political, literary, and philosophical ramifications of the “new weird,” a literary genre which has proved to be both nebulous and subversive in its literary aims. Whereas the original weird, à la Lovecraft and M.R. James, sought to dramatize the insufficiency of human reason in the face of an indifferent and incomprehensible universe, the new weird, according to Robertson, stresses not indifference but abdifference, the rejection of difference altogether as a viable category for grappling with the challenges of the Anthropocene.
Such is the political impetus of Robertson’s work, which comprises both a study of VanderMeer’s fiction and an impassioned call for new modes of thinking that move beyond the humanist tenets of liberalism, environmentalism, and representationalist literary criticism. The political urgency behind Robertson’s work is evident from the first page of the introduction, in which Robertson paints a grim picture of the spiralling political chaos—Brexit, Trump, the resurgence of right-wing xenophobic nationalism—of recent years. “None of this,” Robertson remarks, borrowing a phrase from VanderMeer, “is normal” (2). Even liberalism, he later argues, is not free from the taint of humanist preconceptions, since such ideological worldviews are underpinned by the assumption that all differences can be collapsed into a fundamental sameness, an “inside opposed to an outside” (140). Such an inside, Robertson remarks, is defined by arbitrary borders that delimit nothing so much as the incapacity of the human mind to exist without such comforting constructs.
The political value of weird and new weird fiction, then, lies in its ability to think outside such delimiting conceptions. Such works demonstrate “the possibility of other norms” (2) that may move us beyond the humanist tenets of western thought. This is achieved, Robertson argues, through the creation of what he repeatedly calls “fantastic materialities” (10 etc.), a key concept underpinning the study. One of the most profound insights of Robertson’s work is also perhaps the simplest: that all texts, and all narratives, rely on materiality, which conditions all “patterns and modes of thought” (8). The question that VanderMeer poses in his fictions, according to Robertson, is likewise a relatively simple one: “How does this entanglement of materiality, subjectivity, situation and norms operate when the first term in this list is wholly other—when it is a separate or secondary materiality, a fantastic materiality?” (8).
Robertson’s study here owes an intellectual debt to the recent “materialist turn” in critical theory, and in particular to the notion of “cultural geology” developed by Mark McGurl. Cultural geology aims at “crack[ing] open the carapace of human self-concern, exposing it to the idea, and maybe even the fact, of its external ontological preconditions, its ground” (McGurl 380). This “ground” can be understood, quite literally, as the ground, the fact of human material dependence on a planet that does not obey human laws. As Robertson puts it in a compelling passage, “[no] amount of power to declare borders will forestall the inert force of a nonliving geos” (142), and so there is an evident need to engage critically with the actually-existing fact of material conditions. This need informs the shape of Robertson’s study: following an initial chapter outlining these theoretical and material frameworks, each subsequent chapter examines one of VanderMeer’s fantastic materialities: the Veniss milieu, the Ambergris novels, and the Southern Reach trilogy. In each chapter, Robertson strives to demonstrate how VanderMeer’s works must be understood as offering “other norms” (2)—ways of thinking and being conditioned by materialities radically other to the familiar materialities of the world of author and reader.
Considering the Veniss stories, Robertson critically examines the concept of setting, and the manner in which this concept “makes meaning by drawing boundaries around heres and nows,” and thus reconstitutes space and time within the limited parameters of human meaning (56). The Veniss stories, in contrast, comprise not a setting but a “milieu,” an unbounded and discontinuous collection of spaces and times that do not cohere into a recognisable whole. For Robertson, this milieu invokes—without, importantly, allegorising—the experience of living in the Anthropocene, itself a material milieu that refuses to be collapsed down to human-centred frames of reference.
Regarding the Ambergris stories, Robertson turns to look at how the textuality of these novels, which deploy the self-referential techniques of postmodernist writing, invokes a materiality that such techniques often serve to deny or subvert. Robertson highlights how sections of City of Saints and Madmen, for example, require the reader to decode numerical sequences that refer to specific paragraphs and sentences earlier in the text. The textual meaning here depends on the physical materiality of the book itself—a “materiotextualisation” which, because it neither claims nor denies the possibility of representing the “real” world, avoids the pitfalls of both realist and postmodernist fiction (108). Ambergris is a secondary fantastic world whose material laws are created and conditioned by the very textuality of the Ambergris texts—impossibilities and contradictions occur in Ambergris, Robertson argues, precisely “because that can happen in books” (108). The novels thus confront the reader with a textuality not separate from, but fundamentally constitutive of, a fantastic materiality.
In the final section, Robertson turns to the Southern Reach trilogy, and to the question of borders mentioned above. The achievement of this trilogy, he argues, lies in its creation of a world without borders. Area X offers an example of a “weird planet,” a material geos whose relationship to humanity can never be known, since to know such a thing would require the very act of bordering (defining a limited time and space in which to examine causes and effects) that Area X resists. Area X is not indifferent to humanity, as are the “Great Old Ones” of older weird fiction, but abdifferent, that is, existing “outside” (to use an insufficient spatial metaphor) the limits of humanist thought demarcated by such notions as “same” and “different.” There is no “away” from Area X, Robertson argues, because it is already everywhere. To paraphrase Roger Luckhurst (quoted by Robertson), Area X does not “breach” the ordinary world—“It is (in) Breach” (114). The relevance of such fantastic materialities to the condition of humanity in the Anthropocene is clear: Area X is a “materiality ignorant of the rules by which humans measure themselves and their productions” (142).
Following a discussion of Borne in the conclusion, Robertson ends the volume with the following: “VanderMeer teaches us that even if the production of such fictions will not save us, they may show us the planet saving itself” (158). If this seems like a rather pessimistic note on which to end, it perhaps reflects a broader pessimism regarding the capacity for humanity to actually deal with the challenge of the Anthropocene—how does one confront a problem that transcends even the possibility of setting, or of bordering? This is not a question that Robertson answers, nor would it be fair to expect such an answer—the value of Robertson’s study is rather to be found in the manner in which it frames the issue. The “problem” of the Anthropocene, he notes in the conclusion, is only a problem within a humanist paradigm that recognises the relevance of such concepts as “problems” and “solutions.” It is likely that much of humanity (and Robertson is at pains to stress the particular vulnerability of certain human groups—and the culpability of others—in this regard) will very soon find themselves confronted with a much different paradigm, one that, like Area X, will remain ignorant of human attempts to understand or control it.
Robertson’s work provides us with a much-needed critical vocabulary for engaging with these and other challenges of the Anthropocene. For this reason, and for Robertson’s intelligent and thought-provoking readings of VanderMeer’s fiction, None of This Is Normal is required reading for those looking to better understand the new materialist paradigms with which we are—or are soon to be—confronted.
McGurl, Mark. “The New Cultural Geology.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 57, no. 3/4, Fall/Winter 2011, pp. 380-390.