Mouthful of Birds: On Samanta Schweblin's New Short Stories
By Spencer Gaffney
What do you do when your teenage daughter develops a taste for live songbirds? Or when you begin to suspect that the butterfly you’ve crushed between your fingers is actually your child, transformed? What happens when every child in your small town has been swallowed up by the giant hole they’ve obsessively dug? (And does it make things better or worse when that hole disappears, too?)
Consider yourself lucky that you have not been cast as a parent in Samanta Schweblin’s eerie, and at times thrilling, new collection, “Mouthful of Birds,” published on January 8th.
Parental anxiety is a familiar fear for fans of Schweblin’s propulsive, disorienting slip of a novel, “Fever Dream.” The animating magic trick of that novel – what keeps the reader tethered and eager to push on even when the novel slips beyond full comprehension – is the tension of a parent trying to keep their child from harm.
“Mouthful of Birds” is best read as a sort of companion piece to “Fever Dream.” The collection, while new to English readers, was originally published in Spanish in 2010, several years before the novel’s Spanish publication (the stories are once again translated by Megan McDowell). The stories never quite reach the same strange and thrilling peaks as the novel. But with twenty stories crammed into just over 200 pages, the collection offers the chance for readers to watch a younger Schweblin mapping her obsessions, and seeking out different modes to explore those landscapes.
Reading the collection is like watching a magician honing her act in smaller venues. Occasionally she lights her sleeve on fire, but at her best, we have the pleasure of watching her discover the power to hold the audience rapt that will serve her so well once she moves to the main stage.
In the story “Underground,” so many of Schweblin’s fascinations are on display that it almost feels like an artist’s sketch of the novel to come. A man in transit from one unnamed point to another stops by a nameless roadside tavern for a beer. There he hears the story about the disappeared children in an out-of-the-way mining outpost. This story, more than others in the collection, captured for me the thrill of “Fever Dream,” and its willingness to gesture towards meaning without holding the reader’s hand. We get it all: Schweblin’s strange and dangerous countryside, the buried malevolence of industry, spooky stories told second-hand, and the anguish of parents driven mad by loss.
Still, there’s fun to be had in tracing the different ways that Schweblin’s themes reappear in different guises across the collection. The parents in these stories – whether biological or metaphorical – are often put into difficult situations, and repeatedly found to be lacking. The couple who run the toy store in “The Size of Things” might mean well, but they ultimately serve as passive witnesses to the man using their shop as a refuge as he regresses back into childhood, and are helpless when his terrifying mother appears in the final pages. The parents in the heartbreaking “Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House” are too busy with their own problems and mental instability to provide a decent Christmas for their child ; the arrival of a man dressed like Santa devolves into an all-out brawl when his father accuses his mother of an affair. The best, seemingly, that a parent can do is to accept their (new and often strange) circumstances and adjust. The father in the title story of the collection is maybe the closest thing there is to a hero in these pages, overcoming his own fear and revulsion as he finally purchases a songbird for his daughter to eat.
It’s also a thrill to spend more time in the Argentine countryside, a strange and rarely happy place where so much of Schweblin’s work is set. The countryside is a place that traps people, whether they are tragicomic office workers marooned indefinitely in the Twilight-Zone-esque “Towards Happy Civilization,” or a poor census taker unlucky to be caught overnight without a ride in the desolate outpost in “Rage of Pestilence.” The city might be impersonal and alienating – as it is for the women in the touching “Olingiris,” a story that stands out in part because it plays against type – but there is something other and dangerous about the country.
There is also something timely, but often surprisingly flat, about these stories’ consideration of violence. These stories have legions of violent men who hurt themselves and the defenseless creatures around them through some combination of desire, arrogance, and indifference. Schweblin is particularly interested in the intersection of violence and art. In two of the longer stories in the collection, “Heads Against Concrete” and “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” violent acts by men are transformed, alchemically, into famous works celebrated by the artistic class. While thought-provoking at times, these stories risk playing like a bit of an extended joke: isn’t it weird that a murdered wife in a suitcase might be considered fine art?
Indeed, what these stories sometimes lack is the ability to move beyond the interesting spark or conceit at their center and find a way to surprise or dazzle. Too often I found that the intriguing concept on the first page of the story was all I was left with by the last.
But even when the stories don’t elevate the reader, there is still something exciting about seeing the author at work, trying things out. If “Fever Dream” is required reading, then the stories in “Mouthful of Birds” are the deep dive for the reader who can’t get the novel out of their head, and is willing to look more closely to try and understand how Schweblin pulled it off.