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Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeerUK edition4 stars
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There is a story about James Joyce that’s probably apocryphal, but it goes like this: A journalist asked Joyce why he made Finnegan’s Wake so freaking hard. Joyce answered that he just wanted to give critics something to do for the next 300 years. Which makes sense. If you think of critics as cats, then Finnegan’s Wake is basically a literary red laser pointer, keeping them and their pretentious, academic, gatekeeping ways occupied so they’ll leave normal people alone to read what they please. I don’t think any of that is true. But it does raise a question about so-called “difficult” books and whether or not they’re challenging literary norms in an artistically valid way, or just presenting unnecessary roadblocks to their readers, when their themes could presumably be more effectively communicated by not making everyone wonder if they’re just too stupid to get it.

Consider me a staunch defender of difficult books. I won’t say each and every literary experiment is successful. But without stories that push against convention and make an effort to expand our understanding of what narrative fiction can be as an art form, a lot of us would get bored being in our safe zones all the time, much more quickly than you might think.

Which brings us to Jeff VanderMeer, whose status as perhaps the most successful purveyor of New Weird fiction is taken to the next level with Dead Astronauts, a story unlike anything even he has tackled before. Sure, the Southern Reach trilogy achieved pure surrealism in its final volume, Acceptance. But Borne was the most stylistically accessible work of Weird you’re likely to find, a fable of an altered world told as a traditional three-act adventure, even overtly including epic fantasy tropes only superficially altered for context.

Dead Astronauts is a new novel set in the Borne future, but one whose execution seeks to rewire your brain with nearly every page. It’s like dreaming wide awake. VanderMeer’s writing renders words sometimes as elegant brushstrokes, and other times, like Lego bricks haphazardly kludged together by a hyperactive yet brilliant child. There are times the book felt like I was reading scriptural texts translated from stone carvings discovered on some version of Earth from a parallel universe. There is prose that reads like poetry, and also actual poetry. One moment you may find yourself questioning VanderMeer’s sanity, or even your own, and then a rush of pure distilled emotion will simply steamroll right over you. I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced a novel that simultaneously did everything it could to defy my expectations and even my comprehension in such a focused way, yet still cast a hallucinatory spell all its own.

Probably the only other book I could remotely compare it to might be Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. Like Dhalgren, Dead Astronauts is centered on an apocalyptic city whose landscape is always in flux. In Borne, we saw the City run by the archetypal Company, an institution that appears to have no purpose but to warp and distort and transfigure nature itself, without even the motivating factors of scientific curiosity or financial profit. It isn’t that there’s a method to its madness. Madness is its method. It’s a company, it’s a government, it’s a cruel parent, it’s a blind idiot god. It’s a symbol of every monolithic power that renders humanity itself so insignificant on its list of concerns that fighting it seems both pointless and inescapable, if only so that we can feel we actually meant something in our brief lives.

In Borne, there’s a passage in which Rachel, scavenging the ruins, comes upon three partially buried bodies, still wearing environment suits. Dead Astronauts is the story of those three, as well as other beings they encounter in their eternally looping quest through multiple realities to enter the City and bring the Company down. The only actual astronaut among them is Grayson, a black woman with one blind eye who is the sole survivor of a lunar expedition, who used the last of her fuel to return to Earth. There is also Chen, a product of the Company’s biological experiments who’s constantly in a struggle to keep his body from breaking down into constituent parts. Finally, there is Moss, a creature made of, well, moss, who can shift into any form and who has created a link between the minds of all three of them. Bound together by an intense love that comes from their linked minds as well as companionship through struggle, they travel through many iterations of the City, where they do battle with the Company, its protectors, and occasionally alternate versions of themselves. Most of the time we’re not sure what version of the city we’re in, except when the text includes an actual version number, as if reality itself is a mess of repeatedly patched software.

The denizens of the City include a blue fox, who is never quite an ally but not quite an enemy. There’s a menacing broken-winged reptilian duck called the Dark Bird. The holding ponds surrounding the Company are inhabited by a vast behemoth that endlessly devours the Company’s experimental mistakes, but which proves a strange kind of ally to Moss. And there is Charlie X, a young man with the mutated face of a bat who is responsible for creating most of the Company’s depraved lifeform experiments, who yet tried to maintain empathy despite the hellish existence he’s trapped in. In one of the book’s most wrenching sequences, we learn that Charlie X kept a secret menagerie where he tried to care for some of the creatures resulting from his experiments, and when it was discovered by his father, the man made him kill and eat every one of them. It’s a moment that brings to mind the queasy reality of the conscience-free leadership we find ourselves under day after day, where the phrase keeps being repeated, “The cruelty is the point.”

So what is this literary fever dream all about? Resistance. Resistance to evil, to those who treat our lives as less than, as sport, resistance even in the face of futility. Exploring themes of runaway climate change and the despoiling of the environment, of untouchable and heartless rulers accountable to no one, Dead Astronauts’ worldview is mostly eloquently conveyed in a chapter narrated by the blue fox. The creature basks in the warm memories of living in its free and natural state, in passages that have a repetitive, even incantatory quality. And it relishes the ways in which it hunted down people working for the Company and subjected them to the very horrors they inflicted upon nature. But what matters — to the fox as well as the dead astronauts — more than anything, and what can get you through almost anything, are love, intimate connection and joy. But it’s like the fox says: “In the end, joy cannot fend off evil. It can only remind you why you fight.”