Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Out: April 6, 2021
Vandermeer’s new novel keeps the reader in the grip of curiosity from the opening scene in which the protagonist (‘Jane’) is handed an envelope containing a storage unit key through the various traumas of tumbling down a rabbit-hole in search of answers. That said, the book is not without its narrative clunkers. The book’s great strength (maintaining a sense of mystery) is simultaneously the source of its greatest weakness (inexplicable motivation: i.e. it’s hard to imagine that a person – even the flawed and complex protagonist Vandermeer creates – would be willing to suffer death on so many levels: professional , personal / familial, and — on a couple of occasions – near literally as this woman does, given her dearth of understanding of what is going on at various points leading up to the ending. Given the stakes, one would expect a powerful motive. [One could argue that ‘Jane’ gains a worthwhile motive post-hoc, but that can’t explain her tenacious behavior throughout the book, putting everything in her life at risk when she has only a vague sense of the other characters and their motivations.])
The storage unit key gives the protagonist, ‘Jane,’ access to a cardboard box containing a taxidermized hummingbird and a cryptic note suggesting she should find an unidentified salamander. The signature is in the name of a deceased wealthy heiress who is known for being an environmental activist who most people believe strayed over a line into a life of domestic terrorism. As ‘Jane’ tries to investigate in her (not-so-) spare time as a security expert for an IT company, she runs into many mysterious people, dead-ends, and a few gunfights. Along the way, she loses her job, becomes estranged from her husband and daughter, is shot, and is nearly murdered in a several ways.
Vandermeer builds an intriguing character with ‘Jane’ (the quotes implying that’s not her real name, but – like most all the names in the story – is altered or made-up.) Physically, she is a bulky woman, as in she was a wrestler and a bodybuilder in her youth, and so she is not just large of frame but is physically imposing and can take a beating and walk it off. With respect to her personality, she is somewhere between a dysfunctional wife and mother / workaholic and a high-functioning sociopath. At work, she is respected, though not beloved. She does not play well with others, including her loved ones and co-workers, and can be downright mean to most other people with whom she is forced to interact. However, the full extent of her dysfunction is revealed over time, both in response to the increased stress and as her backstory is shared. In the beginning, we tend to see ‘Jane’ as a professional woman who is skilled, if a bit cold, but while she neglects her family and can be a bit gruff with those with whom she works, she has her redeeming qualities.
The setting looks a lot like our world if we continue to be maladaptive and myopic over a few (or several) more years. Pandemics are referenced; they’ve seen more than one in rapid succession. There is also climate disruption related deterioration. (The two titular creatures are caught up in said ecological degradation.)
The book kept me reading, its story remaining gripping despite what I saw as a number of flaws. Besides the high-level motivation problem that I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, there are a few instances in which the main character does or says something that seems out of character. Despite her personality quirks and coldness, we empathize with ‘Jane’ because she seems like she’s interested in doing the right thing and her personality dysfunctions don’t equate to villainy. However, there was a point at which she mentions an action (to remain unnamed to avoid a spoiler) that takes her past being cold to strangers to being potentially homicidal toward them. It seems likely this was done to set up a cinematic event later in the story that may not be deus ex machina but is built on this thread of unlikely / uncharacteristic behavior – even given her paranoid state at the time.
There is also some exposition that is seems uncharacteristic, unnecessary, and / or distracting. At one point, ‘Jane’ is having an internal monologue about her arsenal of firearms and she comments that she ‘never fetishized guns.’ At this point I was lifted out of the story, trying to figure out the motive for this bizarre additional commentary. Was Vandermeer trying to take a dig at gun owners? A certain sub-class of gun-owners? Is he tribe-signaling that while he puts a lot of guns and gunfights into his story, that he opposes guns in reality — while finding them very useful and / or cool for story purposes? [i.e. Much like the “Lethal Weapon” movie people put gun-control posters in the background of their movie in which a mentally-ill detective with the trigger-discipline of one of those kids who ate the marshmallow before the researcher left the room is the character the viewer is supposed to find sexy and admirable as he shoots a small village worth of people over the course of the movie.] Incidentally, I’m not saying the author shouldn’t express political views via his writing. I think he does so successfully elsewhere in the book by showing us a sequence of events that lets the reader take in the lesson organically. All the blunt force exposition does is make the reader wonder what the author is trying to say, while we should be following the events of the story. [And this is not a story one can afford to let one’s attention drift away from, lest one risk wondering who such-and-such character is or how such-and-such event happened. Often things are mentioned brusquely once that other crucial events will hinge upon. The story is not robust to distraction that way.]
All in all, I enjoy this story and got caught up in it. Though it is not without distractions, clunky narrative activity, and implausible motivation, it does keep the reader intrigued by what’s happening. Going into the final part, I though the book might end on an unsatisfying note, but I think the author ties up things pretty thoroughly in the conclusion. Like the main character, this book has many fine and redeeming qualities, despite its rough edges.
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