Jeff VanderMeer’s new novella, The Strange Bird, is ingenious, provocative, and deeply moving. At times, it’s almost too painful and too beautiful. As a Borne story, it’s also revelation. Out of the futuristic world of Borne, VanderMeer conjures a totem for the Anthropocene. A hybrid spirit strange and familiar enough to wake us from our dogmatic stupor, Strange Bird guides us into unexplored regions of literature and the psyche. While we have excluded the secret life of animals from consciousness, on some level we understand their suffering because we suffer together. Nested in Borne, adjacent to VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, The Strange Bird brings us to the intersection of animals and the Anthropocene. We’ve been here all along, but now, slowly, we’re becoming aware.
Twentieth-century techno science created a false dichotomy of lab animals and animals in the wild. Born and bred to serve the medical and biotech industries, lab animals were primarily studied as surrogates for human bodies. Knowing them was generally synonymous with killing them, and always dependent on removing them from their natural environment and social context. This resulted in a culture that “understood” animals in isolation, and through the mottled lens of human interests narrowly conceived.
Wild animals were occasionally observed in the wild, during the last American century, but more often on television programing about animals in the wild. Mass media creatures were smart, charming, dramatic, and often hilarious. Masterfully edited, as well as narrated and set to music, such representations were a form of domestication or at least spectacle, related to zoos, aquariums and circuses. The most commonplace animals of the Modern era, however, were agricultural animals, not so much on farms, or even stories about farms, but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These animals didn’t have behaviors. They were invisible.
Twenty-first century animal and environmental activism has directed our attention to the plight of animals, but unintentionally maintains this twentieth-century dichotomy by focusing on animals in captivity and, conversely, animals in the wilderness. As the earth has become increasingly urban, however, conditions for all animals have changed. Academics and creative writers are becoming more attentive to interstitial ecology and urban animals, our neighborhoods and our neighbors, but we have not generally adjusted our assumptions about animal behavior.[i]
Enter The Strange Bird. VanderMeer’s novella is as much urban odyssey as fantasy. At the beginning of the narrative Strange Bird, a biotech marvel, escapes the confines of a lab. In flight, she navigates an unfamiliar and frightening world, and begins to understand herself in new contexts and from different perspectives. Before long she is captured by a solitary old man who admires her, but who also imprisons her. He is attached and attentive, seems to want to commune with her, but he can’t appreciate her suffering. Like other humans in the novella, he rationalizes his cruelty even as he is haunted by it.
Eventually Strange Bird lands squarely into the narrative of Borne, where she is captured by The Magician, a sadistic genius who transforms her into a cloaking device. Somehow Strange Bird survives the radical transformation and enters a kind of bardo, where she communes with other animals, alive and dead.
Throughout the novella Strange Bird appears lost and alone. The cage is no home for her, but neither is the world. She is oriented to the voice of a friend or relative (intimate, stranger, and enemy), very close to her but also far away. Told from the point of view of a hybrid, engineered animal, The Strange Bird is one of VanderMeer’s most psychologically complex and heart-rending narratives. How does VanderMeer create and draw us into the inner life of Strange Bird?
Part of the answer must lie in his equally well-wrought and unapologetic anthropomorphism. As VanderMeer has explained in interviews and essays, the intellectual prohibition against anthropomorphism has prevented us from speculating about animal experience.[ii] But this stance betrays Modern prejudices. At a time when the popular media assertively preach the virtues of compassion (identification with the feelings of other human beings), we are reluctant to consider the thoughts and feelings of animals because we have already concluded they are categorically different. Even imagining what animals could be feeling is considered naïve, as if early twentieth-century phenomenology and Psych 101 behaviorism were articles of faith. Anticipating such objections, VanderMeer engineers human consciousness into his main character, though he also flirts with cross-species communication throughout.
Defending the speculative/creative impulse, I stubbornly note that human beings in all cultures still strive to understand one another every day. We dream of sympathy. We recognize ourselves in others. Sometimes, it seems, others understand us better than we understand ourselves. This counterargument has become a critical cliché, but it is also our way of life—our culture. Even if our sense of understanding and being understood are fabulations, why should we be dissuaded from striving to understand animals in this fashion? And why have we forgotten that this prohibition is a cultural and historical anomaly?
The long-standing, cross-cultural tendency to anthropomorphize is arguably a product of various and obvious similarities between human beings and animals. This is not only true from a biological perspective but also an ecological one. We share the same home. We are nurtured by the same planet.
I’d like to suggest that the leitmotif of habitat or home is a primary reason that VanderMeer’s novella is so moving. In The Strange Bird we can identify with the circumstances of the animal. If the storyteller is in a type of relation to the animal, he or she can help us imagine the creature’s circumstances, but perhaps that bond begins and ends with sharing a home.
Like so many of VanderMeer’s characters, Strange Bird is traumatized. There are known and unknown causes of her trauma. Her inner life is familiar, strange, and mysterious, but readers can generally understand the experience of being imprisoned, for example. Though we may not be traumatized by such experiences, we have all had our freedom restricted, and we have all suffered as a consequence. Even if we ascent to such restrictions, through written, spoken, and unspoken contracts, we feel the tension between our competing desires for connection and autonomy.
Being conflicted, torn, fractured, and broken, are other common, potentially traumatic experiences. Particularly disturbing and provoking are VanderMeer’s first-person accounts of dismemberment. As Strange Bird is confined, tormented, and exploited by the Magician, we could and should reflect on basic bodily and psychological autonomy. How do we recognize and fail to recognize bodies in different circumstances? All sorts of relationships, perhaps even the imperatives of survival, tear us apart physically and psychologically. All animals are effectively dismembered when their bodies and brains are exploited. Even love tears us apart. To what extent, and why do we ascent to or resist various transgressions?
Most conspicuous about the main character and the story, is the fact that Strange Bird is always alone. We notice this first when she encounters other birds in social configurations. Later she begins to communicate with “the little foxes.” This is a kind of solace for her, but also serves to foreground her physical isolation. When Strange Bird enters the narrative of Borne, she enters a second storyscape of alienation. She continues to commune with various creatures, in more or less out-of-body experiences, but Rachel and Wick are the only humans who show her kindness, who care for her.
We know from the example of the Passenger Pigeon that life and survival are intimately related to community.[iii] We also know that many animals need wide ranges in order to thrive even as individuals. All animals need space as well as society. Perhaps more significantly, each animal defines space in its own fashion. In this sense, human beings may not easily understand non-human behavior, though this may be a result of limited interaction rather than essential incapacity.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Strange Bird should function as a creative treatise on animal rights or metaphor for human suffering. Rather, I imagine the narrative as an entry point into a revelatory if not redemptive cycle of sympathy and self-awareness. As Sartre speculated in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, we label abject human beings as animals because deep down we recognize their humanity (Book I, section II, “Reciprocity, Exploitation and Repression”). Perhaps this is also why we define animals, categorically, as less than human beings, because we suspect they are not essentially different from us . . . and it’s the only way we can maintain our crumbling narrative of superiority.[iv]
As a Borne story, The Strange Bird is a creative but earnest speculation about animal behavior in the Anthropocene. As such it’s also a story about animal trauma. It seems reasonable to speculate that animal trauma, in general, is connected to environmental degradation, survival pressures, displacement, and violence. We understand, and often repeat, the poorest populations are most affected by climate change, but we don’t generally include animals in this equation.
To the extent that animals are affected by environmental toxins, food deserts, homelessness, fast and slow violence, they may be generally traumatized.[v] These conditions are not new. The beginning of the industrial era created terribly degraded environments for all animals, even if human beings were the focus of civic responses. Silent Spring invoked an animal totem and effectively created ecological consciousness, even if that consciousness still struggles with an imperial gaze. On some level, we are all aware of violence perpetrated by animals against animals. Bellum omnium contra omnes[vi]
What does all this mean for The Strange Bird as a new literary work by a prominent contemporary writer? I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s imperative that literature in the Anthropocene should not be fantastic, because it masks real climate-change related horrors.[vii] This may be a legitimate critique of popular dystopian fantasy, but the criticism makes less sense in the context of surrealism (qua surrealism), VanderMeer’s chief mode. Remembering that surrealism, historically, was an attempt to capture a more complete reality (a form of psychological realism), we can appreciate contemporary surrealistic literature as an attempt to include psychological strata that have been systematically excluded from realistic representations.[viii] Enter the unconscious.
Human consciousness, often understood as self-consciousness, has long performed a gate-keeping function. Because humans have a degree of consciousness about their own intellectual processes and emotional responses, we often assume that non-human cognition and affect is categorically different. Similarly, we tend to equate communication with conscious human languages. But human cognition and affect is also, arguably (and perhaps even primarily), unconscious. [ix] Human communication is also partly unconscious as evidenced by language acquisition in children, who speak grammatically long before they have any concept of grammatical rules, and by studies on body language as a primarily mode of communicating intense emotions.[x]
Unconscious communication has been the purview of writers for well over a century. But all the arts engage the unconscious—consciously and unconsciously. Aesthetics might even be described as a paradigmatic unconscious value system. And while art, like language, is generally considered a uniquely human enterprise, we also know that many animals, birds in particular, sing and dance to attract mates. How is this essentially different than the conscious and unconscious behavior of human “peacocks”?
In the context of Borne, The Strange Bird traces the terrible beauty of animal trauma in the Anthropocene, not as a surrogate for human trauma, but as a creaturely condition that directs our attention to the ubiquitous effects of climate change. If trauma can be communicated through non-verbal behavior, it may be an appeal to all animals. Artists like VanderMeer seem to hear that call, but are they uniquely aware of animal suffering, or uniquely responsive? I imagine that many of us are more aware of our collective suffering than we know. VanderMeer may not speak for non-human animals, but he surely gives voice to the unconscious.
The novella is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073TSB1TW
[i] See City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, for example. Also see VanderMeer’s comments in his recent essay, “Moving Past the Illusion of Control.”
[iii] The species became extinct because individuals can only mate in large flocks. See this Smithsonian Encyclopedia entry.
[iv] As DePaul philosopher Peter Steeves suggested at VanderMeer’s 2017 Earth Week address, perhaps we can’t ultimately define or understand animals because we strive to know them by comparison to human beings, whom we define by comparison to animals. (We can’t know non-human animals because we can’t know ourselves.)
[v] See Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor and VanderMeer’s comments on war and ecological degradation in his Environmental Critique article on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology published here.
[ix] The revival of the unconscious by the neurosciences and the influence of affect on cognition have become common knowledge in academic discourse. An interesting recent book on these topics is Richard Nisbett’s Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. In a recent conversation, VanderMeer noted that we anthropomorphize animals in various sorts of propaganda, and I wonder if this is a marker of (social) media aesthetics as an unconscious economy.