Top critical review
Bio-terror, wildlife trafficking, and the end of the world
Reviewed in the United States on June 20, 2021
I’ll be honest: I finished the book feeling unsatisfied. I engaged early with the protagonist, who uses the name “Jane Smith,” and is built like a tall lumberjack. Right away, she informs that she is going to tell us how the world ended. She’s a cyber security analyst with a husband she calls Bear, and a teenaged daughter. I was compelled initially, but it didn’t sustain my interest consistently. I had to see what happened so I read the whole book, expecting that I’d appreciate the destination, if not so much the journey. With clues and mystery piling up, in this noir-ish fable with a physically clumsy amateur detective “Jane,” I started out intrigued. For me, most of the story felt exhausting and unwieldy, stiffly stylized and meandering. It’s as if I read a different book than those that enjoyed it.
I think the combination of the noir detective and climate disaster dystopia turned eco-terrorism got too gawky, the way Vandermeer did it. He wrote his protagonist, a wife and mother, abandon her family for a dead woman scientist she didn’t know that left her a taxidermied hummingbird and a manifesto scattered like breadcrumbs, all to follow down a rabbit hole. While she saw the world was burning, the skies change to a chemical green tinge, and a murky pandemic invade the species. “Jane” casually cheated on her husband with strangers (even though she was introverted), engaged in casual violence, and watched others get casually beaten, battered, and killed.
I’m confused as to why Vandermeer kept trotting out stereotypical villains and half-villains, who we obviously won’t care about, and set up scene after scene with these half-formed and half-baked characters. Some were caricatures that met cartoon fates. All the while, threaded through the novel, were the supposedly profound (?) words left by the dead Argentine scientist, Silvina, scion to a wealthy, powerful, criminal family. Criminal as in: wildlife trafficking and (maybe) bioweapons.
Anyway, most of the stuff written by Silvina seemed rather trite and coyly abstruse. Occasionally, an author will disguise an inability to shine a light by keeping us in perpetual darkness. Vandermeer seemed that way, or maybe he deals better with the cerebral than the emotional, (which he then sentimentalized at key plot turns). The novel was often busy with extraneous details of hiding finding, texting, calling that were essentially meaningless after a while. Instead of enlightening me, I was drowning in the drawn-out repetition and sociopathy of it all.
When everyone is a sociopath, what is really at stake? The world, I know--that’s what the author put up as the Holy Grail--saving the world. But Jane was constantly being beaten and bruised, either by accident or enemy. And we followed her step by step, car by car, and cars that trail cars, her and her “Shovel Pig,” her nickname for her jumbo handbag.
I learned some things that the internet could have taught me about hummingbirds and salamanders, but the ultimate reveal of the bird and the amphibian were anticlimactic. As far as ecology and wildlife trafficking, what I learned was choppy and randomly sequenced, so I got lost in the weeds, or in the pervasive dark. There’s not much one can figure out, either, since new, essential facts are unveiled right before each small discovery, and the build-up of one thing after another and another gummed it up for me. That, and “Jane’s” lot and lode of injuries. Ouch!
Then this over-the-top ending, which I think Vandermeer could have finessed more keenly. I can tell that he has talent, that maybe I’d like some of his other books. Perhaps this was a rushed quarantine-y book to meet the times. Or I’m just the wrong reader. The style felt forced and disingenuous. Of course others will find this exciting and adventurous, and I accept that I dropped out of caring about these characters left to save the world, even though I read the entire mythic tale, hoping to be converted. I’m sorry, Jeff Vandermeer, that I had to write this review. I can tell that this writer cares about humanity and other living things, more than what is conveyed, extinct or otherwise.
2.5 rounded down