Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Review of Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Languishing in short story purgatory for a decade or so at the start of his career, Jeff VanderMeer's name was not a well known item beyond niche readers of speculative fiction. But as the 21st century approached, VanderMeer started picking up steam, chaining his shorter efforts into complex settings, and still later, into discrete novels. Ambergris is one of this century's great, albeit small bodies of work. It was the Southern Reach trilogy and its psychological horror in the vein of the Strugatsky borthers' Roadside Picnic, however, which propelled VanderMeer into the spotlight—Hollywood even getting in on the action. Seizing the opportunity, VanderMeer followed up this mainstream success by both going back to his roots in Weird, as well as doing something a bit more experimental, a touch more artistic. The novels Borne and Dead Astronauts came of this, and while not the same successes as Annihilation et al, they certainly felt right: a writer is an artist, and therefore retains the right to do what they please with their oeuvre. This meandering path of books leaves readers wondering: what could be next? The answer is 2021's Hummingbird Salamander.

Jane is a mountain of a woman carrying with her a mountain of troubles. She struggles to come to grips with her childhood, and struggles being a wife and mother. Putting her focus into her work, in the opening pages Jane investigates a storage locker in which she finds a stuffed hummingbird. Opening a rabbit hole of murder and corporate conspiracies, Jane's troubles only worsen. Encountering extreme environmentalists and drunken taxidermists, and followed by a man she doesn't know is friend or foe, surviving the ordeal will take every ounce of strength Jane has. <cue trailer credits>

There are many who consider Chinatown the quintessential hardboiled noir story. I think it's fair to say Hummingbird Salamander possesses a similar feel despite being upgraded for the 21st century (with a delicate touch of the Weird). The main character struggles in their personal life. Strange clues pop in and out, requiring investigation. Goons do what goons do—intimidate, interrogate, and kill. And mysterious corporate interests hang around on the fringes—the question not if their fingers are in the pie, but how many, and how deep.

VanderMeer does upgrade this motif for the 21st century. The protagonist not only female but a hulk of a woman, VanderMeer turns the typical detective noir main character 180 degrees, both in terms of gender and body-type. Not just a gimmick, VanderMeer plays off Jane's perception of her physical presence throughout the story. VanderMeer also plays off the stereotype of Jane's character in another interesting, albeit minor fashion: Jane is the negligent parent—spending too much time with personal issues and work, and not enough time with family. The relationship with her daughter strained to say the least, Jane's family dynamic, past and present, feeds a lot of the tension in the story.

But beyond character, readers who like noir come to the page for one thing: how much magic does VanderMeer deploy to sustain suspense and surprise? VanderMeer is a decent hand in this novel, but doesn't bring anything off-script. The color of the rabbit may be different, and he may juggle blowtorches instead of chainsaws, but you've seen the act before. It's a comfortable narrative that doesn't disappoint, but neither does it bowl the reader over with its innovation or charm. There is a satisfying denouement and a couple decent twists, but the majority of the narrative is spent building rather than relaying.

And this is something of a surprise, at least to me. VanderMeer has always seemed to have a tight self-awareness of his work. Like a professional darts player, he knows where he is aiming and most of the time hits his spot. With Hummingbird Salamander, however, there is little sense of style. While I understand he may not have wanted to repeat himself, or perhaps wanted to repeat the commercial success of the Southern Reach, this novel feels like Clarion material, i.e. edited to the point of mere semi-distinction. Compare this to Finch, the noir novel from the Ambergris setting, and the reader immediately sees how such a style would have benefited Jane's plight, or at least helped distinguish it stylistically.

In the end, Hummingbird Salamander feels like a palette cleanser for VanderMeer. After years writing artistic Weird, the novel is straight-forward detective noir, for better and worse. Fitting the mold of such stories and offering taxidermy and environmentalism as its hooks/devices, it takes its sweet time getting off the ground, and when it does, engages the reader unraveling its mystery. Beach reading, I wouldn't expect this novel to be talked about in the same tones as some of VanderMeer's other work in the future, however.

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