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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book Review: Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak

(Note:  This will be a long review.  If you want the short version, it's this -- go buy the book, because it's bloody good.)

In 2007, Christopher Barzak released One For Sorrow, a supernatural YA novel that so successfully encapsulated the terrifying experience of adolescence that it became one of my favorite novels of the 2000s.    While a drastically different work, Birds and Birthdays continues Barzak's exploration of the multitudinous factors that form the basis of identity.
Birds and Birthdays is, first, a conceptual collection.  The fourth chapter of the book offers a detailed account of Barzak's research in the Surrealist movement (existing roughly in the space
between the two world wars) and the women who were almost forgotten there.  As an experiment in feeding female artistic expression (painting) through literary interpretation (fiction), the collection draws parallels between the worlds of metaphor (the paintings) and the very real discourse of female identities in the wake of a patriarchal culture -- this is part of the mission of the "Conversation Pieces" series at Aqueduct Press (to explore the "grand conversation").  "Birthday," for example, expands upon Dorothea Tanning's painting of the same name by turning the unknown woman into Emma, who has spent her formative years taking on the identities required of her by her parents and the culture around her (53-54).  Thus, when Emma inherits her parents' apartment complex, marries Joe at 21, and soon has a child (Jenna), she embarks on a quest to find an identify that more appropriately fits her inner self.  What begins as a series of cruel gestures on Emma's part (leaving her family and her various lovers, one by one, by changing apartments within the same complex) quickly become the sympathetic acts of deliberate personal interrogation through others.  Perhaps the most disturbing of the three stories, "Birthday" is also perhaps the most profound in the collection as a work of neo-surrealist magical realism that draws into question the ways humans have been conditioned to accept identities for convenience.

The other stories are equally compelling, but for drastically different reasons.  "The Creation of Birds," -- drawing upon Remedios Varo's paintings, "Creation of the Birds" and "Star Catcher" -- presents a modernized fairy tale involving the romantic opposition of the Bird Woman, who has the remarkable and beautiful ability to build and bring to life real and mythical birds, and the Star Catcher, whose namesake gives away his game (the Bird Woman remarks that catching stars and other things are a reminder that "[the Star Catcher] didn't know how to love something he couldn't own" (4)).  As a somewhat whimsical tale, "The Creation of Birds" is replete with period references to psychoanalysis (a field which is still practiced today, surprisingly) and stunning descriptions of the Bird Woman's abilities -- I particularly enjoyed the scenes involving the bird designs, if only because birds are, I believe, elegant creatures that would require painstaking detail to create from nothing.  But the heart of the story is her relationship to herself and to the Star Catcher, who seeks to "reclaim" her.  In this sense, it shares a relationship to "Birthday."

The middle story, "The Guardian of the Egg," also questions our relationships and what they mean, but with a much more epic narrative.  Based on Leonora Carrington's "The Giantess," the story focuses on a what happens to the family of those who answer a "higher calling" -- in this case, a mythical calling that draws parallels to the familiar "chosen one" narratives.  In particular, the story benefits from switching perspectives from "the chosen one" to an immediate family member.  The shift offers a fresh -- though not wholly original -- perspective on the now-traditional epic form.  Identity, of course, remains central to the narrative, but so too do the mythic forms upon which the narrative draws (similarly, I think, to "Birds").  As a story, it effectively rides between an interrogation of those forms and of the roles others play within them.  But it is also a humorous tale, with dark references to our ability to turn people into "others" and a clever moment in which the main character must communicate with guardian geese.

Collected together, the three stories have the effect of providing a range of perspectives/narratives that are each unique in and of themselves and each rendered with care and depth -- a sense I draw from Barzak's clean, minimalist prose, which he uses in service of a rather complex and specific narrative agenda.

Birds and Birthdays, however, is certainly not a perfect work.  While I found a great deal of thematic material to draw on, the types of stories found in this collection are, I think, geared to a particular kind of reader.  With the exception of "The Guardian of the Egg," none of the stories have "clean" resolutions ("Birthday" in particular), and all of the stories are heavily focused on the visual thematics of the original source material, thus producing works which are, in a sense, almost surrealist themselves -- certainly a goal of Barzak's.  For some readers, this might be too much, as surrealist works are, in my experience, frequently just that -- too much.  Just like the surrealist films of the early 1900s (see examples at the bottom of this post), the stories in Birds and Birthdays are visually intense and cognitively detached.  "Birthday," for example, relies more on its character's peculiarities than it does on an ordered universe in which the containment of an individual's many relationships in one apartment complex could not happen.  But those same peculiarities are what make the story a brilliant medium for exploring the "skins" we wear as social creatures.  Plot and pure resolution would, I think, detract from the message, just as removing the incomplete resolutions and estranging (read:  not cognitive estrangement) effects would do so for the other stories.

In that sense, what I see as an at times compelling work of art, and at others a somewhat overwhelming vision, rests on the spectrum of work that you either love or you hate.  If you enjoy what might be called experiments in narrative, image, and genre, this is the perfect collection for you; if, however, you prefer your genre to follow the "conventions," then you're likely to pass this one by.

I, however, eagerly await the next book from Barzak.  Birds and Birthdays is, in my estimation, a phenomenal work, even at its unfairly tiny length.  Replete with stunning visuals, a depth of character and theme that compels contemplation, and a conceptual framework that is at once refreshing and deliciously bizarre, Birds and Birthdays is certainly a collection to remember -- and so is its author.


Birds and Birthdays is currently available at Aqueduct Press as an ebook or paperback.  It is the 34th volume in their "Conversation Pieces" series.  You can learn more about the author on his website.


I've included images of the paintings Barzak describes in his book below.  You will also find two YouTube videos of early surrealist cinema at the bottom (specifically, Entr'acte by Rene Clair and the popular La Voyage dans la Lune by Georges Melies -- the latter is not technically a surrealist film, though it is sometimes seen as an important precursor to the surrealist cinematic movement).  Enjoy!

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