Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
Hummingbird Salamander (2021) is Jeff VanderMeer’s newest work, and it may also be his most accessible. Certainly it’s his least strange, though admittedly with VanderMeer that’s not saying much. Though if he’s working in more familiarly popular territory — the thriller novel — there’s no doubt VanderMeer puts his own stamp on the genre, whether he’s working within its tropes or subverting them.
Chapter One opens ominously enough, as any good thriller should — “Assume I’m dead by the time you read this” — and ends even more so — “I’m here to show you how the world ends.” The stakes have clearly been set. Our narrator, who won’t tell us her real name, offering up “Jane Smith” as her none-too-imaginative alternative, is seemingly set in her life when the story begins. Well-paying job in security, husband, daughter, nice house in the suburbs, a pleasant backyard. But Jane, as is often the case with VanderMeer protagonists, doesn’t rest comfortably in the world (Jane, for instance, is a big muscular woman, a former weightlifter, and, in a representative detail, she buys all her suits custom-made because “Nothing store-bought fit right.” Toss in some childhood trauma, a long-dead brother she’s never gotten over, and it doesn’t take much to tip her out of her comfy, settled life. After the tip comes the fall, and a deep, prolonged fall it is.
What sets her on her path is a mysterious envelope with a key in it, which leads her eventually to her a box with a taxidermized hummingbird (an extinct one, to add to the mystery) and a simple note: “Hummingbird Salamander — Silvina.” Silvina, it turns out, is the estranged eco-terrorist daughter of a corporate patriarch who himself is none-too-concerned about the law. In her attempt to figure out the mystery of the box’s contents, the note, and of Silvina herself, amidst a number of violent and at times lethal encounters, Jane will end up sacrificing everything: job, family, her life entire.
As noted, the basic tropes of the thriller are all here: mysterious messages, rising stakes, fisticuffs, gun battles, chase scenes, betrayals, a sense of paranoia, cold-blooded killers, government secrets, and more. And VanderMeer handles them all fine. But he also undermines those genre patterns as well. The tick-tock urgency of most thrillers, for instance, seems at first to be checked off the list, but then VanderMeer almost scornfully tosses it aside as Jane’s quest meanders through months then years, the mission wandering like Lear wondering around the plain, though with neither Lear’s nor the accompanying storm’s energy. No fury or thunder but more a kind of diffuse enervation. Hardly, in other words, the usual pulse-pounding thriller mode.
It’s fun to read VanderMeer use and also play with the genre, and the story itself is solid, even if there are a few moments where one probably doesn’t want to think too long about them from a pure plotting sense, but honestly, I don’t go to VanderMeer for plot so much as I do for his themes, his style, his use of symbol and metaphor and imagery. And if Hummingbird Salamander didn’t deliver in as stunning a fashion as some of my favorites by him (Dead Astronauts, Borne, the SOUTHERN REACHES trilogy, for instance), there’s still great pleasure to be had.
In my favorites of his, VanderMeer’s language is lyrical, poetic, baroque at times, elliptical often. Here though, in tune with the noir/thriller mode, he’s clipped the wings of his style, offering up a spare, sparse, bitten off language, though he gives himself some wiggle room in Silvina’s journals and a few other areas. Truth be told, I miss the usual stylistic flair of prior works, but it’s hard to argue against his choice here.
His use of layered ideas, symbols, and echoes remains though, some admittedly less subtle than others, as when Silvina has to take shelter in a mound of rotting pelts. Another example is the number of references to façades or illusions. Our narrator, of course, from the outset gives us a fake name, and does so with all the people she introduces. Time and again people pretend to be what they are not. Taxidermy, a running presence, can be viewed as a forgery of life. New Yorkers have taken to wearing masks to hide their identities from facial recognition. Jane’s job, cybersecurity, is often, as she tells us, a mere illusion of security. All of this, I think, relating at least in some fashion to the way we hide the truth from ourselves, the way we dutifully toss our bottles into the recycling bin and call ourselves good stewards even as we pick up our phones and drink our coffee while lying to ourselves about where they come from, what they cost the world. I’d make an argument as well that all that disappears from Jane’s life (through her own choices and actions) — husband, daughter, other people, her job, all this loss that leaves her in a hollow, lonely world, is an echo of what is happening to us as we bring about another mass extinction, leaving us to wander an ever more empty landscape.
The concept of ecological deprivation and disaster is by now, of course, hardly a surprise in VanderMeer’s work, and it is in full force in Hummingbird Salamander, as one might have guessed with Silvina (even her name Silvina — Sylvan points that way) being an eco-terrorist. It appears directly in the way it drives the plot, and through Silvina’s diaries and videos, quoted at length throughout the novel, as when we get, here, the moment of her epiphany:
In the moment of seeing the hummingbird, I began to weep with the beauty of it … I identified the bird and realized how rare the species was and headed toward extinction, and what I had borne witness to wasn’t just a minor miracle, but, in fact, a moment that would replicate only another hundred or another thousand times … a naiad hummingbird would only come to the ground to drink a finite number of times before they no longer existed.
This thought was unconscionable to me. Unbearable. It ripped me in two. It destroyed me. And then remade me, and I became someone different than before.
It comes as well in quoted passages from a horrific book (a real one), entitled Oddly Enough: From Animal Land to Furtown. In reference to big events outside the plot: raging wildfire across the globe, a climate-refugee ship in its own “voyage of the damned,” a slowing Gulf Stream, floods, cyclones, frack-quakes, oil spills, pandemics, pollution masks, a funny color sky. But it also sneaks into the everyday, into the mundane, as VanderMeer isn’t going to take the easy route by pointing accusatory fingers at big corporations or unaware politicians. Jane, and through Jane all of us, are just as culpable. When she (we) buys her expensive coats and doesn’t “think much about where the softness came from, or what it cost.” When they (we) get their Christmas tree, “cut down so it could be adorned with plastic and glass baubles that pollute the house.” When she (we) used her phone “made from rare-earth elements extracted” in ruinous, often corrupt fashion. The lawn service that “spew[ed] herbicide.” All of it easy to turn a “willfully” blind eye to in our day-to-day comforts, until like Silvina we experience (or are forced into) an awakening of sorts, when we ask the same question Jane asks of herself: “How did I not see the damage for so long?”
Like Silvina, once awakened, Jane cannot go back. Can’t close her eyes again, can’t unsee what she’s seen, unhear what she’s heard, unlearn what she’s learned. Though one has to wonder if this is wishful thinking on VanderMeer’s part, as we have been shown this, told this, learned this so many times in so many ways, and yet most of us still manage to live our ways in the same fashion we always have, albeit with perhaps a bit more guilt.
Like Silvina, VanderMeer is trying to break through what she terms “the fatal adaption,” the way we learn to “care less” because “to care more meant putting a bullet in your brain.” It may be a quixotic, even Sisyphean task, but I for one am thankful VanderMeer has readied his lance or set shoulder to boulder yet again.