Investigating the Anthropocene in “Hummingbird Salamander” – Chicago Review of Books


By looking beyond the surface clues to deeper and more unsettling realities, the detective story lends itself well to horror, even cosmic horror. There are no elder gods or supernatural terrors lurking in Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer’s newest novel, but I found myself reading with that kind of dread. A grippingly-paced and paranoid eco-thriller, Hummingbird Salamander is the story of “Jane,” a security analyst, who is pulled into an increasingly tangled and increasingly personal world of animal smuggling, terrorism, and clandestine government deals, all in the shadow of the sixth mass extinction. Action-packed, memorably voiced, and rich in detail, the novel uses the thriller format — bureaucratic espionage and private investigation — to spiral inwards to a story of personal and ecological disaster.

Jane is leading a quiet life with her husband and daughter, quietly haunted by her traumatic childhood, when an anonymous note leads her to a stuffed hummingbird and a labyrinthine mystery — both the creation of one Silvina Vilcapampa. Seemingly based partly on Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampa, VanderMeer’s Silvina is a visionary, perhaps driven a bit mad by her vision, who’s tried to find new ways for humans to live on the planet. Jane slowly and imperfectly unravels Silvina’s story, revealing her connections with criminals and government agencies, her fraught relationship with her family and their multinational corporation, and her shift to more extreme measures. 

Right from the start, Jane’s voice has the snappy, poetic weariness of the hard-boiled private eye. “A dead robin in the gutter, one torn wing spread toward the drain like an invitation to the underworld.” Very consciously framed as something she has written, the story is marked by Jane’s paranoia, her omissions even in this supposedly honest confession — her own name is a pseudonym, and she won’t even give us placeholder names for her husband and daughter. VanderMeer nails the deadpan noir language: it’s a serious novel, but the near-camp tonal perfection of the narration keeps it lively. Even when it feels claustrophobic or anxiety-inducing, the combination of flashbacks and plot escalation keeps the story moving irresistibly. VanderMeer’s use of noir stylings over deeper and stranger thematic investigations recalls Mieville’s The City and the City, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, or, perhaps inevitably, Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Jane also feels like a development of characters from VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy: the conflicted bureaucrat, Control, and the nameless biologist, a competent loner who transforms herself in the face of strangeness and horror.

Any story about murder should have at least the potential for horror. The killing of a person, the death of an individual — these are horrifying things, and it’s only genre conventions and the desensitizing effect of the daily news that can obscure that. Larger-scale deaths — disaster, genocide — are more obviously horrific, and that horror is bound up with our inability to comprehend their magnitude. Extinction, then, the human-caused deaths of entire species, is a horror waiting to be recognized, every moment, around us, in ever-worsening degree. There are plenty of human-scale crimes and tragedies in Hummingbird Salamander, but it’s this awareness that drives Silvina to madness. Like a Lovecraftian protagonist glimpsing something terrible from beyond the stars, only much closer to home — the enormity of grief in losing a species, the enormity of guilt.

Ecologically aware fiction often struggles with the problem of joylessness. How do you present an essentially dystopian world, as cautionary tale or as clarion indictment of our current path, without letting misery overtake the prose — and likely drive away a lot of readers, or, equally as bad, seem to preach a gospel of hopelessness? It’s a problem Hummingbird Salamander wrestles with a bit, to be honest: it is in many ways a grim story, in Jane’s traumatic origins and trajectory, in its all-too-real referencing of pandemics and ecological disaster. Still, it’s leavened by enjoyable elements; Jane is not exactly a cheerful character, but I found myself tapping into her satisfaction — her competence at spycraft and skullduggery, her physical strength, her underdog tenaciousness. Like so many great PIs, Jane is out of her depth, in the sights of much larger entities, but also skillful and resilient in ways that make each chapter sing. The world itself is another thread of joy, albeit at a bit of a remove. The vision of the naiad hummingbird’s last journey — their fierceness, loveliness, uniqueness — is part of what pulls Jane into the mystery. The secret life of the salamander — vulnerable, safety-seeking, absorbing the world through their skin — clearly resonates with her as well, ever more so as she gets closer to the end of Silvina’s plan. It’s frequently lamented that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; like much of VanderMeer’s work, Hummingbird Salamander is an attempt to imagine, not an end of the world, but a transformation.

Hummingbird Salamander
By Jeff VanderMeer
Published April 6, 2021


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