Bird: A Novel
Past and present collide in the acclaimed short-story writer Noy Holland’s début novel, Bird, a poetic exploration of the texture of memory and of the unconscious patterns that shape our lives over time. Describing a spiral of remembered events, Holland’s narrative traverses towns, highways, and deserts (in her words, “the great dry wide American open”), while, at the same time, remaining enclosed in a single character’s stream of consciousness. Intensifying the intimate themes of Holland’s earlier fiction—the family, the body, the psychic disturbances of domestic life—Bird maps the turbulent internal world of what Virginia Woolf once called “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.”
That mind belongs to Bird, a married mother of two. During the course of a predictable weekday, Bird wakes up, cooks her husband breakfast, nurses her baby, and waits for her son to come home from school. Aside from occasional phone calls from her friend Suzie, she spends most of the day alone with her thoughts, longing for the past and specifically for Mickey—the lover with whom, in her youth, she “slummed,” took drugs, hitchhiked all over the western states, and felt, she believes, “free and clear”. It was Mickey, we learn, who gave Bird her nickname, inspired by condors, which “mate for life,” and cranes, which can “find their way by the stars while half their brain is sleeping.”
Distracted from her domestic routines, Bird daydreams about her lost life with Mickey, reliving its reckless eroticism as well as its sometimes disturbing violence. During sex, they fantasize about dying together: “they would fly off a bridge, dusk coming down; they would slam the car into a wall.” Compared to the settled life she leads now, she reflects, her time with Mickey “was a way to keep things from happening. To be, and to hold off from becoming.” In this sense, she yearns not only for him, but also for a long-suppressed part of herself—a feral and perilous instinct, older than any youthful romance. Mickey may have named her, but, as Suzie asks, “what was your name before your name was Bird?” Holland’s novel gives us no answer: beneath the surface, Bird’s mind, like our own, conceals something unnamed and unknown.
If Bird idealizes her bohemian past (“you were broke,” Suzie has to remind her, “and cold”) she never beautifies it artificially; her memories provide ample fuel for what William Gass has described as Holland’s “ardent grimness of eye.” Much like Holland’s earlier work, Bird juxtaposes lyrical prose with a keen attention to the grotesque. When a bathtub falls through the ceiling of Bird and Mickey’s rundown apartment, “with it came diapers and droppings, a bloodied tampon, a gnawed-on bone; a poisoned rat as long as Bird’s arm with its eyes busted out of their sacks.” Holland’s novel bulges and bursts with images of abjection, which seem to resonate with its central event: a graphically rendered miscarriage, after which Bird is abandoned by Mickey: “What was left was all tatter and thread, he told her. Broth and a bloody dumpling that caught and flinched in the tube.” Distraught, Mickey later destroys all the gifts he has given her, smashing “the little clay pot she kept her earrings in,” and burning “every letter he had written and the box he had made to hold them.” This devastation, however, is inseparable from the life that Bird longs for. Desire, for Holland, is never straightforward, and Bird is a book about “unholy love;” the kind that makes Bird bite a stranger’s arm and Mickey “gouge at himself with a penknife.”
For Bird, remembering means reliving painful events, but also searching for meaning within them. “You hoard,” Suzie warns her; “you keep too much,” yet the mess she has kept from her previous life (“the peel of the first orange they shared;” a “cruddy bloody tissue” from her miscarriage) helps Bird make sense of the deeper “mess of herself.” Similarly, Holland’s writing accrues a series of recurring objects, weaving an implicate order from apparent chaos. Although Bird believes that she has lost touch with her past, she is surrounded by dozens of subtle connections. A tooth she had pulled, which she keeps in a box, seems almost to reappear in the mouth of her baby. Suzie calls her “sugar,” just like a waitress she met on the road once with Mickey. The novel is full of these tiny likenesses; symmetries and similarities that encircle Bird as she moves through the day, and which collapse past and present into a timeless, miraculous pattern. Perhaps this pattern is what she perceives at the end of the book, walking in the sun with her children. “God above,” she wonders, in an epiphany equal to those she remembers, “dazzled, rapt—gone to her knees in pieces in the wind of a passing world.”
“The mind’s true business,” the critic Denis Donoghue once remarked, is not so much to “think” as simply to persist; like the rest of the body, its ultimate purpose is “to keep going.” In the same way, Bird and Mickey merely wanted “to keep on;” although they could not, Bird’s memory keeps going regardless. Above all, Holland belongs to a tradition of modernist writers who have tried to capture that motion; to make language move like the mind does, obeying the same unfathomable urge. Bird only describes an ordinary mind on an ordinary day, but it articulates a common truth: like Bird herself, we all hoard objects—a memory, a nickname, a bloody tissue, a tooth—which move us in ways we cannot control or explain. Holland follows that motion in all its mystery, observing the mind “moved by the fact of its moving, spinning itself out again.” Long one of our finest writers, now one of our finest novelists, she goes further than most fiction goes, but where our minds go every day, every moment. And, as she goes, she shows us the stars that guide our migration.
DAVID WINTERS is a literary critic, and a Ph.D. candidate in American literature at Cambridge. He has written on literature and philosophy for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and numerous other publications. His essay collection Infinite Fictions was published in January 2015. He is co-editor in chief at 3:AM Magazine, and can be found online at www.davidwinters.uk.