Hummingbird Salamander, let’s face it right now, is a pulpy page turner with as many twists, double crosses, and mystery puzzles as one of Dan Brown’s gimcrack potboilers. That’s not a fair comparison, of course, as Jeff VanderMeer is a terrific writer, while Brown struggles with any sentence above a reading level. Strong points magazine. But in terms of plot, it’s remarkable how faithful the Southern Reach trilogy author’s latest novel is to the rhythms and tropes of a conventional thriller. A protagonist receives a strange clue and is quickly torn from his normal domestic life in the dark world of terrorists and government agents; there are conspiratorial rabbit holes and breadcrumbs leading to discreet sources; danger and death lurk around every corner.
And yet, no one really chooses a Jeff VanderMeer novel for fast-paced action or eye-catching hooks – not one of its fans, anyway. The prolific author is one of the leaders of Weird Fiction for a reason; his often elliptical and genre-specific bibliography is full of the kind of provocative and idiosyncratic storytelling that has earned him both literary fame and a popular audience, the goose that lays the golden eggs of publishing. Success does not seem to have subdued his penchant for unusual world building and philosophical thought experiments, like his last novel, Thick headed (and his following news in the universe, The strange bird and Dead astronauts), can attest to this. At first glance, Hummingbird Salamander may seem like her simplest job to date, but much like the upper-middle-class businesswoman at the heart of this novel, the appearance can be deceptive. By the end of the story, the dark heart of the book’s eco-fiction was laid bare. The unsettling, apocalyptic worldview underlying his narrative is as dark and disturbing as anything he has written.
There is black structure and tone to this book, a tactic that VanderMeer has already adopted, albeit to notoriously different purposes, in his novel on the Ambergris Cycle. Bullfinch. Its narrator, who provides the pseudonym “Jane Smith”, will Double indemnity itinerary: “Assuming I’m dead by the time you read this,” it opens, promising to tell us “how the world ends”. Like many things in his unreliable narrative, this turns out to be both true and a bit of a sham, a foreshadowing of the grim outcome that awaits him. A consultant for an anonymous digital security firm, Jane leads a fairly routine existence, commuting to her drab offices from the suburban home she shares with her awesome husband and brooding teenage daughter. Then one day, a barista tells him that someone left him an envelope containing the key to a storage facility, which triggers a trip to a room containing only a taxidermized hummingbird and a note with the title phrase. , as well as a name: “Silvina. “
Jane discovers that Silvina is the nickname of a recently deceased woman who used her connections with the billionaire family to engage in eco-terrorism. Tracing the origins of the hummingbird brings only vague threats to Jane, and in no time her gym locker is ransacked, surveillance lines her house, and she has guns pointed at her. But rather than return to her mundane life, Jane eagerly torpedoed her, like Tippi Hedren in The birds, going up the stairs to investigate strange sounds despite the almost certain violence that awaited him. When, halfway through the book, VanderMeer moves forward in time five months under a very different set of circumstances, it doesn’t feel so much like a reset as it does a doom, a path that has been waiting for Jane from the start.
Neither the environmental apocalyptic nor the cultural apocalyptic are new themes for VanderMeer, who has repeatedly questioned climate devastation and humanity’s talent for self-destruction, increasingly weaving such concerns into most of his writings over the past decade. Long passages are devoted to Silvina’s wonder at the immensity of the powers of the natural world and the repulsion she feels at her sacrifice on the altar of human progress. Sometimes it can be shocking, that shift from conspiracy and paranoia to trust to harassing ruminations about animal trafficking and environmental disaster. But if it seems more abrupt to the reader than it does to Jane, part of it is intentional – the break in her life is meant to reflect the larger that is happening all around us, all the time, in a way that we have. tendency to block as a way to get through the day. Just recognizing it can sound like a lecture we don’t want to hear.
But the emphasis remains on character, even during these meditations on the natural world, with the slow-motion collapse of society periodically creeping in on the fringes. In the same way that Alfonso Cuarón subtly addressed the various global crises in Children of men without ever drawing attention to them directly, Hummingbird Salamander also drops flashes of color in the background: here, a television showing tales of a wildfire or economic recession; there, an uncomfortably realistic pandemic sends nations scrambling for non-existent security. These little flares, the opposite of the appoggiatura, slowly create an atmosphere of inevitability that gets darker and darker.
Despite an ending that offers the possibility of redemption, this oppressive sadness saturates the novel, a deep sadness and pessimism from the point of view of Jane who keeps even her greatest Pyrrhic victories, like winning a lottery ticket on a ship in perdition. The book impresses the reader because of this disconcerting melancholy, and not in spite of it. It taps into the part of ourselves that knows things aren’t going right, that knows we haven’t done enough to try to keep the world from falling into darkness. And he does it all while delivering a good tale crackling about a woman above her head, dodging bullets, and fighting the kind of men we know all too well from reports and history books. “How much of it looked like some sort of ritualistic theatrical performance,” Jane said of her work at one point. “The way we tried to convince ourselves that the systems weren’t down. Oh how we twisted our brains to find a justification for what could not have a justification. What we supported. Rarely has existential despair received such a crackerjack boost.
Author photo: Ditte Valente