There were some commonalities among the divergent adult offerings: mainly, female protagonists facing the entropic degradations of the biosphere amid cascades of surreal incidents. But the differing narrative venues, modes and atmospheres in each sequence exhibited VanderMeer’s insistence on clothing his perennial themes and obsessions in diverting new garments.
Now from this daring and ever-shifting author comes “Hummingbird Salamander,” a volume more naturalistic, more like a traditional thriller than its predecessors, but one that also features hooks into the literary novel of paranoid conspiracy, a genre best exemplified by Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.” In fact, our doughty and frankly terrifying heroine, “Jane Smith,” might be the Oedipa Maas the 21st century needs.
The book takes place in that familiar realm categorized as “ten seconds into the future.” Delivery drones are finally up and running, but not much else in the way of technology or politics is far advanced from 2021. What is different is that the slippery slope to total planetary disaster has been further greased. “Wildfires in five countries meant animals were crawling to the side of roads to beg people speeding by in cars for water. . . a cruise ship commandeered by climate refugees [is] rejected by yet another port. . . The garbage in the Atlantic had slowed the Gulf Stream to a near-critical level.” All of humanity’s sins are coming home to roost.
But in the midst of this accelerating chaos, life, at least in the rich countries, continues in a semblance of good times for those who can bury their heads in the sand. And so our narrator, with the concealing cognomen “Jane Smith,” holds down a well-paying job as a security analyst, probing the defensive systems of corporate clients for weaknesses. She has a loving husband and a touchy but affectionate teen daughter. Yet there’s a worm at the heart of this ostensibly rosy life, and it rears its head in the form of a burdensome yet seductive obligation.
One day, at her local coffee shop, Jane is tendered an envelope with a note and a key. This leads her to a box inside a storage unit. In the box is a stuffed hummingbird — of a species that should not exist. What does it all mean?
Jane’s sharp intellect and professional training take over, and she begins ferreting out clues. She learns that the hummingbird came from Silvina Vilcapampa, eco-terrorist, utopian, aspirant protector of the planet, scion of a sociopathic billionaire father. The bird’s mate, an equally mysterious salamander, remains at large. Together, the two hold the key to some revolutionary technological breakthrough that might succor the ailing globe. Silvina has entrusted Jane with carrying forward her enigmatic legacy. (Why Jane? The answer is ultimately forthcoming and shocking.) To do so, however, involves Jane abandoning all security, safety and respectability, forsaking — even betraying — family, friends and co-workers, and plunging into a deadly competition between the elder Vilcapampa, his rival Langer and a free agent named Hellbender.
VanderMeer’s tale succeeds marvelously on many levels. First is the creation of Jane and her narrative voice. Over 6 feet in height and commensurately bulky, a high school wrestling champ, Jane has always been a round peg in a square hole. Her alienation and estrangement from society — compounded by the childhood death of her brother at the hands of an abusive grandfather — while tamped down for a long time, takes only the slightest jarring from Silvina to come to the fore and explode. Once launched off the rails of conformity, Jane is a walking cataclysm. Her perceptive observations and descriptions weave an atmosphere of unrelenting coldblooded doom from the very first page. Yet her emotions are also given fair shrift, and ultimately she becomes the definition of a “hopeful monster,” a term derived fittingly from evolution sciences describing a bridge between stages of a species.
The action sequences and convoluted pursuit of various MacGuffins — way stations toward the ultimate MacGuffin — are masterfully done, with cinematic set pieces, noirish interludes and horrifying bad guys. And VanderMeer does not neglect the symbolical aspects of events, as when Jane must shelter ironically in a midden of pelts:
“By the time the door opened and Langer and his friend entered the warehouse, I was hidden deep, cringing and shivering from the touch of so much unfamiliar texture. The smothered flat glossy feathers and furs against my arms and legs and face. The dead bright eyes I couldn’t see in the gloom. The dull-sharp beaks rasping against me. Hooves and paws from the wrong directions, against my back . . . I was in some kind of hell that pressed against my skin so I couldn’t tell where my body ended and some other body began. I was drenched slick with my own sweat, and moving slick, trembling, trying not to retch.”
Lastly, the book digs deeply into themes of individual moral culpability for communal sins.
One could imagine Lars von Trier filming Jane’s Dantean descent and conflicted redemption, giving us a 21st-first century odyssey into the guttering soul of the planet.
Paul Di Filippo is the author of the Steampunk Trilogy and “The Deadly Kiss-Off.” His next book, “The Summer Thieves,” is forthcoming in June.
By Jeff VanderMeer
MCD. 368 pp. $27