Politics and Society

Monday, July 11, 2011

Art on a Stick: A Critique of The Bird Artist (1994), by Howard Norman

  Howard Norman’s second novel, The Bird Artist, was a National Book Award finalist in 1994. I will be much obliged – and probably shocked – if anyone can tell me why.
   Granted, it has the guts to be an intriguing story, full of fabulously eccentric characters who behave in ways that are shocking and gripping and human in all the best senses of that word. And it even has an ambiguously ‘happy ending.’ So, what’s not to like, you ask? I answer: The book. It just sucks --the way pointless stories do.

   Take "Hamlet," for example. It has all the aforementioned qualities as well. Now, delete all the speeches and leave only stage direction, the action and the non-dramatic dialogue played against the phony backdrop of artificial scenery, and you’ll see what I mean. What’s left? Would it still be a compelling – or even comprehensible - drama? We would be left with a bunch of interestingly clad actors going about some recognizably human activities without any sense of why they are doing so, or why it should matter—to them or to us! One can have this experience looking out the window.
   That’s the effect of Norman’s style. The Bird Artist recounts the story, told by the referent and main character, Fabian Vas, of a series of fatal events—at least one of which is a murder—in the Newfoundland fishing village of Witless Bay in 1911. (Remember that name – ‘witless’ – it will come in handy.) In the opening paragraph of the book, Vas confesses
               . . . I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it.
               Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that
                is an equal part of how I think of myself.
   If you expect this confession to be, in some way, explained or put into context by the story, you will be disappointed. What this act of murder, or the painting of birds, for that matter, means to Fabian Vas is not on Norman’s agenda –apparently, not even on his radar. But then neither is any other motive or meaning. We never learn why Margaret Handle, the artist’s love interest, takes such an early and casual sexual interest in Vas, but she does. We don’t know why his parent’s don’t object to his sleeping with her every Tuesday and Thursday night --he is sixteen at the start of this affair. (It is 1910 in an Anglican community, after all.) We don’t know why he is reluctant or unable to dispute his parents’ wishes for his arranged marriage, but he is. We don’t know the why of any of the behaviors of these characters, some of which eventually prove fatal to two main characters, and disastrous for more. Howard Norman doesn’t want us to know. He thinks a story can be told without an answer to that ‘why’ question. The result is predictable.
    The plot could be compelling, but it isn’t. The characters could be variously endearing or infuriating or comical, etc., but they’re not. Instead they are just there, doing their things. They do their things, and people die --often, and without apparent reason.
It is the writer who is unreliable in this case. Norman doesn’t want to provide any access to the inner lives of these characters or their motives. Even professions of intent or desire or remorse, etc., come after the fact, and often in blatant contradiction to the ongoing action. Consequently, this novel reads like a police report of a crime, or a witness account by a person with Asperger’s syndrome. All the details are rendered, ad nauseum (We get to know the name of every person in the village and every bird on the eastern seaboard, though none of it matters.). But the motives remain a mystery: Not because they are deep and inscrutable, but because they are ignored as if irrelevant or, worse, non-existent.
   The effect is ultimately unnerving. The absence of any affective or emotional reaction to such fatal events – even events involving the death of the narrator’s mother (was it Murder?) is simply incredible. It makes subsequent behaviors seem completely absurd in the most literal sense; even grotesque. (Hey, what’s a little matricide between friends-with-benefits?) It also makes other scenes simply comic. Indeed, the inquest into the murder of Botho August reads merely as farce, though I’m pretty sure it was not intended to be such.

   This the critics hail, and the back cover blurb declares “a measured, profoundly engrossing story of passion, betrayal, guilt, and redemption between men and women.”  Really?
   What unmitigated nonsense! You will find no evidence whatsoever of passion, guilt, or redemption in this novel, explicit or implicit. Betrayal you will find. (In fact, it fairly runs amok. People betray their own hearts, their own intentions, their parental and familial responsibilities, their spouses, their own good sense and their professional responsibilities, at a rate that is, frankly, hard to keep up with.) Betrayal you will find, but the rest –the passion?, the guilt?, the redemption? - not so much as a hint.
   My initial reaction to The Bird Artist was near disdain. It infuriated me not to know why and to think that the writer must know and was holding back, and that he was being highly praised for doing so. Then, I realized – after some sleep and a morning’s calm consideration – that this was the writer’s point, after all. Not the fury of a disappointed reader, but the tension of unanswered questions. The scholastics call this tension ‘aporia’. A Wikipedia search offers this:
      The Oxford English Dictionary includes two forms of the word: the
      adjective, “aporetic” which it defines as “to be at a loss,” “impassable,”
      and “inclined to doubt, or to raise objections”; and the noun form
     “aporia,” which it defines as the “state of the aporetic” and “a perplexity
      or difficulty.”
It has a long history, stretching back to Plato and even beyond to the myth of ‘Penia’ (poverty) and ‘Poros’ (plenty), the parents of Eros. [In ancient Greek, the prefix, a-, serves as a negative indicator, so a-poria, comes to mean the opposite of plenty: an 'insufficiency' --in this case, of explanation.]  But it has been the rhetorical meaning, ‘the [rhetorically] useful tension of doubt or perplexity’ that has been most often employed and that applies in this instance. There is a powerful and profoundly moving use of aporia in Norman MacLean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, where the heart-wrenching tension is resolved in a way that teaches us something we need to know about Life.
   We must ask, what is Norman’s use of this doubt in The Bird Artist? Frankly, I find none. There is a plot development which I earlier called a 'happy ending', but it is as completely unsupported and inexplicable as the crises that preceded it. The nagging questions; why? and who could do such things? remain unresolved. This is not so much a use of tension as the evocation of tension for its own sake. It seems motivated by nothing more than its own mere possibility. It is not, then, rhetoric: Instead, I find it a scholastic trick: 'Look Ma, no motives!' If Howard Norman had invented aporia, this might be exciting. Instead, it is infuriating. He wasted a good plot, interesting characters, a fantastic setting, and my time showing us that he can google "aporia". The result speaks for itself.

   Personally, I find the difference between this use and MacLean's to be as widely disparate as the chasm between the sketches we call illustrations and the works we call Art.

    So, I have wondered whether Norman intended this exercise in alternative story telling as a reductio ad absurdam of writing program aesthetics. (I  think it, at least, highly ironic that Fabian Vas learned his craft through a correspondence course with Mr. Sprague.) It could certainly function as one, and the sly, wry quip at the end, when Isabel Kinsella hisses at Vas, “Slieveen” – a Gaelic slur meaning ‘a deceitful person' – could be taken as evidence; as could the mordant judgment of Isaac Sprague on Fabian’s skills as a ‘bird artist,’ as well as his (Sprague's) witless though honest confession, viz.
          I won’t bother to remark upon the people you’ve represented here. I
          don’t know the people of this village, obviously. And I don’t care. . . .
          I don’t care much for people anyway, in painting or in life, truth be told.
          That’s my failing and I’ve relied on it for much of my happiness.
In my estimation, this admission can serve reflexively as an indictment of the style the artist employed and the product of that employment. Such is meta-fiction.

    It is often said that actions speak for themselves. Well, I disagree! Not in this case they don’t. The truth is that, whatever that platitude is worth, actions must be seen in context to be significant at all, and context is usually essentially, or most importantly, a matter of motive. When you delete motive from the account, actions can mean anything or nothing at all. The fault is not in us or in our expectations.  It is in the availability of context, or the lack thereof. In literature that means: It is in the telling. Our job is to know and to bring what we know about human nature and life, in general, to the reading of a novel; Not to know, or to guess, what these particular people are up to or why. That job belongs to the writer. That's why some writers are said to expand our knowledge, or to confirm it, while others, like Howard Norman in The Bird Artist only presume upon it, thereby,perhaps, only confirming  our vanity.
    The writer here is doing exactly what the ‘bird artist’ does: he abstracts his subjects from their natural setting and renders them without comment or context, as portraits in motion. Tellingly, Isaac Sprague, the senior mentor to the aspiring bird artist, says: “Never let the background environment overwhelm or distract you from your focus on the bird” This a clue as to the purpose behind Norman’s style. He is writing a How-to book on novel writing. (He, Sprague, also, gnomically states: “There is no such thing in nature as a perfectly still water reflection,” and ‘Try to depict your [subjects] birds in motion.’)

   Ach, Mensch, man! So, there we have it: Another novel about writing novels. Another artwork about Art. Another nomination for prizes. The question is, is it worth it?
   Sadly, I think not. There is a reason that bird artists rarely (or never) make it into the Museums. Theirs is a skill as disconnected from the true essence of their subjects, as the twigs, on which the birds balance in Fabian's sketches, are disconnected from the tree which gives it life. Their art is like a ‘bird on a stick.’ Having apparently been guided only by this metaphor in the writing of the novel, Howard Norman has created the very thing Sprague intended: Art-on-a-stick. To some, this will be an interesting exercise. To critics schooled in writing programs, it will be prize-worthy! To readers who care about people, and novels about people, it won’t.
   Now I think I know why they nominated it for prizes; and I know why it didn’t win.

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