Sunday, April 10, 2016

Does this get your motor running?

Last week I blogged about the fact that Oscar Isaac had been cast in the upcoming movie adaptation of Annihilation. He'll be playing the biologist's (Natalie Portman) husband - a secondary character in the book who should have lots more screen time in the movie. You see, the book is told from the biologist's point of view during the twelfth expedition, as she tries to find out what happened to her husband during the eleventh expedition. Eventually she discovers his journal and learns the truth by reading it, but you just know that in the movie we'll see his story play out live. And trust me, it's going to be very exciting.

But while we're waiting for the movie to start production, what about a little more background on what happened when the eleventh expedition returned from Area X? The passages I'm going to quote will give you some small spoilers, but since they're all within the first 40 pages of the book, it shouldn't matter much. So if you want to read about virile young men being turned into zoned-out zombies - and the biologist's attempt to have sex with one of those zombies - read on. And for maximum effect, imagine Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac in these two roles.

The first quote begins after the biologist has explained how the returnees just showed up, at various and in various places, with no clear idea how they got back from Area X. The second quote explains how her husband returned, and how she handled his bizarre reappearance.

Estrangement, in all of its many forms, was nothing new for these missions. I understood this from having been given an opportunity along with the others to view videotape of the reentry interviews with the members of the eleventh expedition. Once those individuals had been identified as having returned to their former lives, they were quarantined and questioned about their experiences. Reasonably enough, in most cases family members had called the authorities, finding their loved one’s return uncanny or frightening. Any papers found on these returnees had been confiscated by our superiors for examination and study. This information, too, we were allowed to see.

The interviews were fairly short, and in them all eight expedition members told the same story. They had experienced no unusual phenomenon while in Area X, taken no unusual readings, and reported no unusual internal conflicts. But after a period of time, each one of them had had the intense desire to return home and had set out to do so. None of them could explain how they had managed to come back across the border, or why they had gone straight home instead of first reporting to their superiors. One by one they had simply abandoned the expedition, left their journals behind, and drifted home. Somehow.

Throughout these interviews, their expressions were friendly and their gazes direct. If their words seemed a little flat, then this went with the kind of general calm, the almost dreamlike demeanor each had returned with - even the compact, wiry man who had served as that expedition’s military expert, a person who’d had a mercurial and energetic personality. In terms of their affect, I could not tell any of the eight apart. I had the sense that they now saw the world through a kind of veil, that they spoke to their interviewers from across a vast distance in time and space.

In case you couldn't guess, the "compact, wiry man" with the "mercurial and energetic personality" was the biologist's husband. Now, skipping ahead just a little, let's see what happened when he returned.

One night, about a year after he had headed for the border, as I lay alone in bed, I heard someone in the kitchen. Armed with a baseball bat, I left the bedroom and turned on all the lights in the house. I found my husband next to the refrigerator, still dressed in his expedition clothes, drinking milk until it flowed down his chin and neck. Eating leftovers furiously.

I was speechless. I could only stare at him as if he were a mirage and if I moved or said anything he would dissipate into nothing, or less than nothing.

We sat in the living room, him on the sofa and me in a chair opposite. I needed some distance from this sudden apparition. He did not remember how he had left Area X, did not remember the journey home at all. He had only the vaguest recollection of the expedition itself. There was an odd calm about him, punctured only by moments of remote panic when, in asking him what had happened, he recognized that his amnesia was unnatural. Gone from him, too, seemed to be any memory of how our marriage had begun to disintegrate well before our arguments over his leaving for Area X. He contained within him now the very distance he had in so many subtle and not so subtle ways accused me of in the past.

After a time, I couldn’t take it any longer. I took off his clothes, made him shower, then led him into the bedroom and made love to him with me on top. I was trying to reclaim remnants of the man I remembered, the one who, so unlike me, was outgoing and impetuous and always wanted to be of use. The man who had been a passionate recreational sailor, and for two weeks out of the year went with friends to the coast to go boating. I could find none of that in him now.

The whole time he was inside me he looked up at my face with an expression that told me he did remember me but only through a kind of fog. It helped for a while, though. It made him more real, allowed me to pretend.

But only for a while. I only had him in my life again for about twenty-four hours. They came for him the next evening, and once I went through the long, drawn-out process of receiving security clearance, I visited him in the observation facility right up until the end. That antiseptic place where they tested him and tried without success to break through both his calm and his amnesia. He would greet me like an old friend - an anchor of sorts, to make sense of his existence - but not like a lover. I confess I went because I had hopes that there remained some spark of the man I’d once known. But I never really found it. Even the day I was told he had been diagnosed with inoperable, systemic cancer, my husband stared at me with a slightly puzzled expression on his face.

He died six months later. During all that time, I could never get beyond the mask, could never find the man I had known inside of him. Not through my personal interactions with him, not through eventually watching the interviews with him and the other members of the expedition, all of whom died of cancer as well.

Whatever had happened in Area X, he had not come back. Not really.

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