Rating 4 stars
Samanta Schweblin’s collection of short stories, Mouthful of Birds, is as unsettling as her debut novel. Between the pages of this collection, the quotidian is turned on its head and a creeping sense of menace permeates the unremarkable. The underlying message that I picked up was: be careful what you wish for.
The Digger was one of my favourites in the collection. In it, the simple act of digging a hole turns into an act of bewildering menace for one man who has rented a house by the sea for some rat race respite. On arrival late at night he discovers that the house comes with a Digger and nobody in the nearby town is surprised by that. I loved this story because it made me think simultaneously of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry and parts of Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Schweblin has delivered a perfect example of nightmare reality.
There is more in a similar vein in Toward Happy Civilization, in which a traveller is trapped at a railway station having lost his train ticket. The ticket vendor won’t sell him a replacement, giving the excuse that he has no change in his till. The traveller ends up spending the night at the ticket vendor’s home and wonders if it’s all a ruse.
The Merman is hilarious. A young woman with family troubles meets a merman sitting on a pillar at the dock. He’s Joey from Friends level cheesy. He all but opens the conversation with “How you doin’?” They share information about their families. He’s an only child with a demanding mother. He also believes in astrology. For a mythical creature, he’s delightfully mundane and clichéd. She has an overbearing brother who is trying to control her life and a mother who is sick. The merman represents escape for her. He’s simultaneously farfetched and everyday. He may or may not be real. I loved everything about this vignette of what can exist in the mind of someone trying to escape the stresses of their life.
Irman was another favourite. It delivers everything you need to know about the characters to build a full picture of who they are and how they came to be that way. I could imagine it as a TV play. I’d enjoy watching it. Similarly, Underground delivers a simple scene with a lot going on in the background, as an old man tells a version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, except without a piper to explain the mysterious disappearance of an entire village of children.
Elsewhere, gender clichés are upturned in both Headlights and Butterflies. In Headlights, three women rise up from among the abandoned brides whose hours-old husbands suddenly realise that marriage isn’t what they want. It is only the abandonment of a bridegroom that impels the abandoning husbands to return to the scene of their wives’ humiliation. It’s a zombie story in which rejection stands in for death. In Butterflies, a competitive dad at the school gates meets with suggested tragedy when his boasts of how pretty his daughter looks that day causes a transformation to occur.
Mouthful of Birds, Santa Claus Sleeps At Our House, Olingiris and A Great Effort each explore the effects of the breakdown of relationships on children. In the first, a teenage girl develops an unusual eating disorder that each parent, separated of course, believes the other to have caused, while in the second, which is funny in the way David Sedaris can be funny, a child learns about who Santa Claus often is in a story about warring parents and one boy’s hope for a remote controlled car. In the third, two girls grow up with absent fathers and find it difficult to form relationships. They take different roles at the same institute in a tale of abstract loneliness that put me in mind of the writing of Hiromi Kawakami and Sayaka Murata. The fourth story follows the effects of a father’s serial pattern of leaving the family home on his son into adulthood, with the son in danger of repeating his father’s ineffectual abandonment. It falls to a masseuse to unclick the joint that is causing the paralysis between father and son.
A parent-child relationship of a different kind leads to the scion of a wealthy family regressing to childhood in The Size of Things. Across the path of the story hints are made that this regression isn’t just emotional. The man goes to work in a toyshop, and his relationship to the toys and the shelves the toys are stored on suggest a diminishment of size alongside the change in his behaviour.
Childlessness is addressed in a couple of stories. The effect of unplanned pregnancy on a relationship is the subject of Preserve, in which a highly unusual alternative to termination is employed to get the relationship back on track, while On the Steppe sees a highly unusual alternative to adoption employed by young couples who leave the city for a rural life with the hope of finding and taking in a child to love.
Not everything in the collection was for me. Two stories made me downright uncomfortable. The Test is a brutal parable about using violence to fit in and getting your come-uppance. Heads Against Concrete is a distasteful tale of an artist who seems to have a personality disorder that he tries to control through his art, and through that art the world sees him as a deeply unpleasant, violent racist, with his paintings somehow standing in as a front for their own deeply unpleasant, violent racism.
The final story balanced on a knife edge in terms of enjoyment. A man who has killed his wife becomes celebrated as an artist for the way he has stuffed her into a suitcase. A curator at a modern art museum declares that his ‘work’ “goes beyond the superfluous emotions of common art”, and gives it the title Violence. Schweblin seems to be commenting on the way everything we have previously thought of as art has become boring to the masses, who seek ever more violent and private things on which to train their gaze. It made me think of the Young British Artists of the late ’80s, as well as the voyeuristic turn reality TV is taking, with no holds barred. Attention spans are shortened and only the most shocking thing in any given moment will whet the appetite.
Of the rest, the stories just didn’t grab me. None of the remaining stories is badly written, I just didn’t find them as compelling as the stories I’ve picked out above. It’s a mark of Schweblin’s talent, though, that her least engaging stories are only so because the company they keep shines more brightly.
What I liked most about this collection is that these stories are of a kind more frequently associated with male writers. Schweblin shows that women are capable of writing disjointed, dispassionate, discombobulating stories, too. I’ll be interested to read more of her work in future.