There is an old movie called Bird Man of Alcatraz about an inmate of that famous prison who spent his time cultivating relationships with birds—reading about birds, capturing and befriending birds—day after day with the birds. They enriched his life and made it worth living on that windblown rock. Everyone thought he was crazy, but he was probably the only sane one.
Now that warmer weather is on its way, I have noticed early in the morning the distinct, complex and beautiful song of one or two birds. This isn’t the simple, pretty whistling of robins or cardinals, but a dozen-note Chopin studs. These birds might be Julliard graduates.
I saw them the other day in the corner of the window across the hall about eight feet away. I was behind bars, and they were behind the bars of the outside window. One had a reddish-tint to it, was very small. It would fit easily in an 18-ounce peanut-butter jar. It was not a cardinal—I know what a cardinal looks like, can tell the difference between a male and a female—and its friend was a pale yellow with a stubby beak, like the nose of a boxer.
Prisons make for great bird sanctuaries. There are so many bars over the windows, and corners of the windows, that no one is going to clean out the nests. Inmates can’t do it as they would spot any weakness, using it as a possible place to escape, and the c.o.’s sure as hell aren’t going to do any physical labor, so, imagine you’re a bird looking for a home.
The perfect place for a bird-home is in the corner of a warm window with bars blocking most predators. I mean predators in the animal kingdom, not of the human variety, of which there are plenty. When I lived in A-Ward, on top of the library most nights was an owl standing sentinel over the yard. She was majestic, with a six foot wingspan unfolding when she spotted something scurrying across the yard. An owl is about the only predator a prison bird has to worry about.
My songbird friends are inspirational, the way they hop cheerfully around, singing their pretty, happy song. I wish I knew what kind they were, and if the sun ever comes out to stay, maybe I can get a better look at them, and better describe their song.
The main character of The Full Ridiculous, Mark Lamprell’s debut novel, is hit by a car in the first chapter, by far the strongest part of the book. When he is wheeled into the hospital he makes a mental note to tell his architect friend that hospitals should be designed around their ceilings, because that is what patients see.
It’s an unusual detail, and it makes sense. Factor into this quirky vision the protagonist’s job in movies—that is, he writes about movies, is mid-stream in a book about Australian cinema, and I have high hopes for what I’m reading, up through the first ten pages. In fact, the instant he’s hit by the car, he recalls some advice a stuntman gave him on the set of the last Mad Max film, about how to “successfully” get hit by a car.
In retrospect, the fact that there are no other details about the Mad Max movies—not even the full title, Beyond Thunderdome—is a warning sign, but I didn’t know that then.
I have mentioned a different movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock, in other reviews. It is an Australian movie set 100 years ago, about a group from a girls’ school who go on a picnic one day at, you guessed it, Hanging Rock. Four of the girls disappear, and one young man who saw them on that day becomes obsessed with finding them. There is no actual violence, yet it is one of the creepiest movies I have ever seen—a masterpiece of suspense and imagery. Besides that odd masterpiece, I know there is a rich film history on that continent—besides the aforementioned Max Mad franchise, the first two of which are amazing cult classics—because there was an entire section devoted to films down-under on a recent History of Film.
What I’m saying is, if a character who has devoted his entire life to his home-country’s cinema is suddenly incapacitated, what is he going to focus on? Movies, right? If he doesn’t (and he doesn’t—he mentions Zorba the Greek a few times, but it doesn’t amount to anything) he needs to have a pretty good excuse for not paying off on this expectation.
It could be done. What if he suddenly becomes obsessed with an injured kangaroo in the area? Okay. I would go for that. It’s a book set in Australia, and there is not a kangaroo anywhere. The City the story is set in is not even mentioned. It could just as well have been set in Boise. There is one Aboriginal man, but only in passing.
Instead of what could have been a rich examination of post-accident depression in an interesting country, what we get is the injured man fretting uninterestingly about his teenage son and daughter.
There is a weird constable who singles out the daughter for some pretty harsh treatment, which might push an injured depressed person completely over the edge. The reader expects it. A person can only take so much, but nothing happens. He doesn’t ambush the lunatic constable, fuck him up, and threaten worse if he ever comes near his family again. At the end of the book, things just sort of work out, everybody’s happy, and the formerly-injured man is going to go surfing with his son.
This isn’t really a novel, though it looks like one: there is a cover and it’s 248 pages, but it isn’t.
By way of example about why this isn’t a novel, let alone a successful one—and it is the most common trait of failed novels—is this sample paragraph about the talkative receptionist at a psychiatric office:
“You don’t like to be rude and tell Em to shut up and download her shit on some other sucker because you don’t like to be rude. Also because she might switch your prescription with a menopausal madwoman’s and suddenly you’ll be growing man-boobs. You were almost fifteen kilos overweight at your most recent weigh-in. Man-boobs are the last thing you need.”
I like the character of “Em,” how the patient becomes her shrink. But no promising character or plotline is ever fleshed out. The entire book is told in summary, and I am becoming convinced there are many people in the publishing business that honestly don’t know the difference.
I’m sure the author sees the scenes in his head, but it’s as if he’s taking shorthand. Any sort of emotion or insight, therefore, feels unearned. His worries feel corny. There is no story. As an opposite example is the recently reviewed House of Sand and Fog which is ALL in scene. It’s much better to have too much scene than not enough. A person would rather have a crowded, overstocked kitchen than a 2D, cardboard, stage version of a kitchen. You can do something with the crowded kitchen. All you can do with the fake one is pretend.