APRIL 29, 2017
WHEN VARIOUS FRIENDS, colleagues, and acquaintances saw me reading a review copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne, they all posed some version of the same question: “What kind of weird is it?”
I suspect this is a question many prospective readers will ponder. After all, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have used various novels, anthologies, and forums in recent years to articulate the meaning of the genre category “New Weird” and the role of weird stories in reshaping aesthetics and ethics to address the era of the Anthropocene. But there’s more to this question about Borne’s kind of weird than generic taxonomy.
Just as I was finishing the novel, Mark Fisher’s brilliant book The Weird and the Eerie was released, providing a welcome paradigm shift for thinking about what the weird is and does. In particular, Fisher intervenes in the near-ubiquitous pairing of the weird with the uncanny, declaring:
Freud’s unheimlich is about the strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange — about the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself […] The weird and the eerie make the opposite move: they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside. As we shall see, the weird is that which does not belong.
In other words, Fisher’s concept of the weird emphasizes surreal encounters as evidence that multiple realities exist adjacent to each other, perhaps as alternative possibilities for each other. Fisher further claims that “there is an enjoyment in seeing the familiar and the conventional becoming outmoded.” By veering the weird toward what does not belong, readers will find unexpected wonders in Borne, including the unsettling pleasure of witnessing status quo objects and systems grow obsolete. Specifically, VanderMeer’s latest novel engages readers through its complicated relation to the headlines of today. Unlike Mohsin Hamid’s recent Exit West, which puts a wrinkle in the recognizable narratives of refugees fleeing violence and oppression, Borne intertwines references to current events with musings about the long-range logics of ecological and economic traumas.
Two beings-who-do-not-belong drive the narrative of Borne. One is Mord: a skyscraper-sized bear who not only voraciously devours the city but also flies. Yes, Mord flies. We don’t know how; we don’t know why. So what is Mord? In short, Mord is a product of the Company, the only somewhat functional institution that remains in the city — a mysterious institution with obscure motivations that releases a diverse riot of biotech devices and beings into the city’s urban space. Notably, the Company does not serve as a representative of neoliberal capitalism driven by profits and shareholder dividends — the usual suspect in contemporary social novels, lurking behind the smokescreen of individual greed.
Instead, the shadowy Company of Borne is weird in its not-belonging. In the absence of discernible motives and the lack of circulation infrastructures, Mord does not represent a commodity, an embodiment of techno-scientific hubris, or a symbol of capitalist market ideologies. Without performing a conventional allegorical role, this big bear consistently disrupts the protagonists’ actions, forcing them to stop and observe his surreal synthesis of bulk and elegance. From a distance, the bear looks graceful, balletic even. In closer encounters, Mord surprises those on the ground by flying silently above, broadcasting his presence only when his massive shadow overtakes the observer like a cumulonimbus cloud passing before the sun. Mord is a deeply weird type of the sublime, combining the natural sublime we feel in the presence of megafauna with the technological sublime we feel when encountering sophisticated machines. In Mord, these familiar types of the sublime are contained within the surreal impossibility of a gargantuan flying bear. This aesthetic experience is totally weird for both those in the novel and those reading it, yet Mord is more than merely a spectacle to witness from a safe distance. The bear’s roaming shapes the story as biotech objects and beings infest its pelt like cockleburs hitching a ride to drop and seed and grow.
That’s where Rachel, the first-person human narrator of Borne, comes in. The child of refugees (initially displaced by climate change but perpetually uprooted by the decline of human civilizations worldwide), Rachel survives in the city as a scavenger and salvager with her partner, Wick. Mord’s pelt is a productive resource, and the bear is too big to notice the miniscule movements of a human climbing and combing through its fur for treasures — treasures that Wick is a master of repairing and repurposing. The novel opens on one instance of Rachel biotech harvesting: “I found Borne on a sunny gunmetal day when the giant bear Mord came roving near our home. To me, Borne was just salvage at first. I didn’t know what Borne would mean to us. I couldn’t know that he would change everything. Including me.”
The eponymous Borne is the other weird thing that does not belong. Rachel struggles taxonomically, not unlike the Miskatonic University team in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, to determine whether Borne — a name she assigned — is a plant or an animal. She conveys Borne’s utter weirdness in a sequence of shifting multisensory descriptions, changing to match the transformations this odd biotech being undergoes. As in the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer’s capacity in Borne to conjure the weird by describing its sensual presence is astonishing, as in this account by Rachel:
Since the attack, Borne had changed again. He had abandoned the sea-anemone shape in favor of resembling a large vase or a squid balanced on a flattened mantel. The aperture at the top had curled out and up on what I chose to interpret as a long neck, sprouting feathery filaments, which almost seemed like an affectation. The filaments, with a prolonged soft sigh would crowd together and then pull apart again like bizarre synchronized dancers […] Colors still flitted across his body, or lazily floated in shapes like storm clouds, ragged and layered and dark. Azure. Lavender. Emerald. He frequently smelled like vanilla.
The invocation of cephalopods feels familiar, but Borne already transcends the tentacular in this early passage and continues to do so as it morphs time and again throughout the novel. Borne complements the surrealism of Mord’s ability to fly with its incomprehensible anatomical miscellany.
Borne gets even weirder when it makes physical contact with other things. Borne absorbs things, but nothing ever comes out — a fact that strikes Rachel as absurd, and Wick as alarming. As Borne acquires the ability to communicate with Rachel, it tries to find the words to articulate its mode of contact, settling for calling it “sampling” (and definitely not killing). What Borne absorbs, it claims, continues to live in or perhaps through it. In this sense, Borne is the inverse of Mord: the latter destroys while the former preserves (and even archives) those it has taken into itself. This dichotomy of weird forces in a broken world is imprinted in the materiality of the novel’s cover, where the florid figure of Borne emanates for all to see and the specter of Mord lies glossily embossed and visible only when tilted to catch the light.
Borne’s sampling appears to serve as a key to the novel, pointing out a schism between Borne and Rachel. How can a human being communicate with another being that never loses and has never experienced loss? Or, to reverse the flow of inquiry, what might a being with the capacity to absorb and archive everything — a being that can access totality — reveal to us? What can the outside perspective of the inside that the weird conjures make clear or make happen? Perhaps this is where the weird works to generate a new ecological aesthetics. A glimpse of this potential comes in a late exchange between Rachel and Borne, right after it believes it’s determined that it “was made to absorb […] was made to kill.” Rachel narrates:
“You are a person,” I said, because I had to say it. Even with the evidence before me, or perhaps because of it.
“Rachel, you can’t see what I see. I can see all the connections,” Borne said. “I can see where it’s all headed, what it’s headed toward. I just haven’t been strong enough to see it through. I’ve lingered and I’ve delayed. I’ve thought maybe…”
At first glance, it’s tempting to get caught up in Rachel’s expansive notion of personhood, an openness to the weird that is not without value. However, her taxonomic openness is not itself an embrace of the thing-that-does-not-belong. Real openness to the weird arrives when Rachel sets aside her own labels in an attempt to grasp Borne’s outside perspective. Obtaining a Borne’s “eye” perspective (and, by the way, Borne frequently manifests myriad eyes, some human and some not, as it performs observation of the world in a way that Rachel should comprehend) may ultimately be impossible, but the novel implies that this is where hope resides. The only other character who proposes a social agenda to improve life in the city through coalition, one known as the Magician, is cast as untrustworthy, if not an outright villain. In this sense, Borne differs distinctly from the collectivity-envisioning weird featured in the fiction of China Miéville.
It turns out that Mord and Borne, the two weird beings that do not belong, are two examples of the Company transporting things in and out of the city — perhaps in and out of the Earth itself. Within the Company building, Rachel and Wick discover what appears to be a means of passing things across dimensional divides. To get caught up in the mystery of the Company, however, is to miss the other element of the weird that Mark Fisher describes: the strange pleasure of observing a rising obsolescence. Within Borne, this weird pleasure is rendered palpably through the salvage and renovation of language and love. That reclamation signals a sort of second death for the ideas, structures, and objects that were once integral to the quotidian life of the city’s inhabitants.
Borne’s discovery and adoption stirs Rachel to recall her past, and in the process it drives her to return to the force of love: for herself, for others (of all different types), and for the world as a totality. What really enables this salvaging of love is language: the increasingly complex banter between Rachel and Borne, as Borne gradually learns English, shines as one of the novel’s finest aspects. In their dialogues, VanderMeer emulates the puns, rhymes, and wordplays that link loving sets of human youngsters with adults, but with a weird twist: this child absorbs everything it samples and is fully aware that it will only ever mimic being human. In place of Victor Frankenstein’s melancholy creature learning Miltonic discourse, we get exchanges like the following:
“What rhymes with crappy?” Borne would ask.
“No, that word doesn’t rhyme with crappy.”
“But it rhymes with city, and that rhymes with happy.”
“None of that is true.”
“True rhymes with fact.”
“In a way, I guess.”
“Fact rhymes with city and happy.”
“No, in this case city and happy put together rhyme with ‘opinion’.”
“You don’t share my opinion?”
“Borne…” His asymmetrical rhymes were like bad puns in three dimensions — tiring, often scatological, or as he put it “only natural, which rhymes with cultural” — but always coming to a point.
What saves these sequences of linguistic exploration from enacting mere nostalgia is the weird twist that Borne, Wick, and Rachel bring to the classical Oedipal triangle of Mommy, Daddy, and me. The three make a weird family, embracing both chance and choice in forging a social unit. Together they are able to unearth language and love from residue of history and set them to work again in weird and wonderful ways otherwise unimaginable.
To close this review, I return to the opening inquiry; one friend followed the question about what kind of weird Borne is by asking which Beatle Jeff VanderMeer would be. If Borne is the index, then the answer seems clear: the Beatle he’d be is Frank Zappa.
Andrew Hageman is associate professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he researches and teaches the intersections of ecology, techno-culture, and infrastructure in literature, film, and the arts.