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‘Mouthful of Birds’ is a Surreal Stunner

‘Mouthful of Birds’ is a Surreal Stunner

One of the unexpected joys of my recent move from Chicago to Florida has been coming into contact with enormous birds: herons, ospreys, anhingas, and egrets of all sorts, feathered friends that don’t usually hang around in the Midwest. Florida hosts a multitude of smaller birds as well, too many for me to count, and so far I’ve only seen a handful. These birds have become an omnipresent part of my short time in the south. They fascinate me.

Birds, in life, film, books, etc., seem to regularly take on surreal and portentous meaning. They survive in city or countryside, fly high and swim below the surface. They can be menacing or placid, but in the title story of Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell, birds serve as an unusual figurative tool: A high-schooler who, in the words of her father, dresses “like those porno schoolgirls in magazines,” gobbles live sparrows to obtain some sort of unspecified vitality. The father, narrating, after consoling his ex-wife at the end of her rope, takes his daughter home with him and embraces her new diet in relative stride. To clarify, consuming live birds in this fictional scenario is normal to no one but the daughter; it’s no youthful trend or gym gossip fad, but her father remains supportive no matter his personal revulsion. The twenty stories Schweblin presents in this collection all function within such offbeat worlds, dreamlike settings that feel geographically isolated in the subconscious, places where the turmoil rests in the difficult truths coming to life in unbelievable or impossible manifestations.

To call these stories weird or experimental isn’t exactly on the mark. Schweblin is a masterful technician and builds elegant character arcs and narratives that accelerate in esoteric ways. While the content may be peculiar, the form is meticulous. The collection is chock-full of masterful reversals, last-minute turns that showcase Schweblin’s ability to carry a story to a satisfying close. However, in succession, these surprises come to be somewhat expected. The stories that lean heavily on this structure are frontloaded in the first half of the collection, so that the latter works bring a renewed sense of energy, but by that point it’s difficult to shake the anticipation of the coming magic trick.

Of this early bunch, “Headlights,” which kicks off the collection, is the most thrilling, not only because it is first, but also because it is perfectly shaped. Early on, hordes of women are left in the dark (pun intended), waiting for men in cars to return for them. The newest woman to be abandoned remains hopeful, but “Headlights” offers a crystal clear twist at the finish line.

“Heads Against Concrete” and “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” two other standouts, deals with the absurdity of art. In the former, the narrator explains, “I paint pictures of heads hitting the ground, and people pay me fortunes for them…Some people ask me for portraits of their own heads. They like gigantic square canvases, and I make them up to six feet by six feet. They pay me whatever I ask.” Though the humor within this story is at times blasted through an air horn, it fits the narrator’s voice, and in its punchy prose remains lively and even-keeled. Balance, overall, is one of Schweblin’s crucial narrative skills. The over-the-top moments never jump the shark.

Here, McDowell also deserves ample praise. The translation work renders the author’s writing superb on the sentence level. I can only imagine it is a special type of challenge to maintain the livewire energy and curt, cutting moments Schweblin has tightly coiled in her prose.

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Schweblin appears to recognize and be wary of the complications of creating art for a willing audience. Mouthful of Birds presents a medley of fantastic and absurd situations, but with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness, so that the curtain is partially pulled back on its own wonder, making the sleight of hand known, but no less understood, and all the more thrilling.

Mouthful of Birds
By Samanta Schweblin
Riverhead Books
Published January 8, 2019

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