Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Strange Bird

3rd Bird Perspective


My thoughts on Jeff VanderMeer’s novella The Strange Bird: A Borne Story


I once wrote something that asked if birds could write autobiography. Jeff VanderMeer’s new novella, The Strange Bird unknowingly answers my question with an emphatic “almost.” The Strange Bird gives exactly what its title promises, the story of an engineered bird-human-cephalopod hybrid. The strange bird undoubtedly thinks in human language (English, to be precise) but it doesn’t quite tell its own story. VanderMeer writes The Strange Bird in what I want to call 3rd-bird perspective. 3rd-bird perspective is just like 3rd-person perspective, except the narrative voice provides access to the thoughts, memories, and sensory experiences of a bird instead of a human. Even as the strange bird is colonized by the English language and by human perspective and DNA, she keeps her bird perspective. She flies. “The joy of flying overtook her and she went higher and higher and higher, and she did not care who saw or what awaited her in the bliss of the free fall and the glide and the limitless expanse” (location 26-7).  She dive bombs foxes, and imagines escaping from a cage “in a storm of wings” (401). She realizes that she is some sort of raptor, perhaps a falcon. “Her feet ended in talons meant to rend, to slice, to tear. . . Her beak was sharp and curved” (109). In flight she comes across three birds and realizes that “like her, they were not strictly avian” (78). They are “living satellites” (78), shaped like black vultures with “the feathers at the ends of wide wings like long fingers and their heads gray and bereft of feathers” (68).

Determining exactly what the strange bird is doesn’t seem important, especially as she becomes multiple things over the course of this short novel. At one point, she is turned into a sort of invisibility cloak by the Magician, and yes, for those of you have read VanderMeer’s Borne, this is the same Magician who fights the flying bear Mord, and tries to destroy Wick and Rachel, the central human characters of Borne. Indeed, The Strange Bird takes place in the same post-apocalyptic world as Borne. Along with the Magician, Mord, Wick and Rachel all play a part in The Strange Bird. Even Borne himself makes a brief appearance. Like Borne, and like VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy, The Strange Bird has an interest in the dissolution of boundaries. Like those other books, The Strange Bird gives readers a radical strangeness that resists being interpreted into everyday life. While The Strange Bird might at times read like an allegory or a fable, it is too complex to be rendered into a warning about climate change, or a moral about human self-centerdness. It probably is these things, but it is more.

The Strange Bird, like Borne, presents a nonhuman perspective that shows just how limited any human perspective always is. Early in the novella, the strange bird is captured by a character known only as “the Old Man.” The old man admires the strange bird’s beauty, and gives her what he thinks is a “dazzling name,” Isadora (194). He thinks of himself as the strange bird’s friend, and tells her “you are beautiful and good” (252). But the Old Man knows next to nothing about the strange bird. She rejects the Old Man’s equation of truth and beauty; she rejects his friendship as she knows that he would quickly kill and eat her if he became hungry. The strange bird rejects the Old Man’s entire worldview and way of life. The Old Man tells the strange bird he is a writer who is writing a “great story” “of how the world came to be this way” (283). But the strange bird knows that he cannot tell this story. His typewriter has no ribbon and he only has fifty sheets of paper. “He counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page” (283).

For me, this scene leads to a great insight. What the Old Man is “writing” is clearly unreadable nonsense. The Old Man realizes that he cannot tell his “great story” and he tells the strange bird that “It is all lost.”

In response, the strange bird thinks (for she has not revealed to the old man that she understands and can speak human language) the following. “Yet what had been lost? The old world had been no better for the Strange Bird’s kind than the new. Just different” (293). The Old Man’s story is less than useless. Just as the Old Man’s values (good) and aesthetics (beautiful) mean nothing to the strange bird, his lost memories and lost world mean nothing to her other. Humanity seems to have brought about an ecological catastrophe in the world of The Strange Bird and of Borne, but the strange bird just does not care. She survives and she lives, the compass implanted in her body pushing her ever southeast. The Strange Bird renders human disaster into the background noise of the strange bird’s life, and the life of Borne, and of Mord. Human catastrophe is only interesting to humans.

This is not to say that these beings are not affected by the human cataclysm. They are strongly altered by humans, down to the genetic level. The strange bird is caged, mutilated, and almost destroyed by humans. Eventually, she reaches a place without humans and is happy. “To go for days without seeing a person was a blessing for her, and calmed her thoughts” (1112). But The Strange Bird does not posit a human-free Eden as a way out for the strange bird. In this way, VanderMeer’s novella is not anti-human. Instead, The Strange Bird imagines a different way of thinking about and living in the world, a 3rd-bird perspective that asks “what did it matter. For what are bodies? Where do they end and where do they begin? And why must they be constant? Why must they be strong?” (1153). The strange bird seems to ask these questions rhetorically. She never answers them; instead, “she sang for joy” (1153). Like the strange bird herself, The Strange Bird (and also Borne) sings for joy, even as the world is ripped asunder. The strange bird lives. The Strange Bird tells her story.

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