Bird Eat Bird
by Katrina Best
Montréal, QC: Insomniac Press, 2010
200 pp. $19.95
“She would enter the tiny room silently, allowing the Intimately Beckham for Her perfume sampler that she’d daubed herself with before leaving the house this morning to announce her presence. He would look up.”
This is the beginning of a fantasy seduction scene in “Tripe and Onions,” the final story in the debut collection from U.K.-born, Montréal-based writer Katrina Best. The narrator is Meredith, a shy cashier at a dumpy regional grocery store; the object of her affection is Jamie, a hunky shelf-stocker with shaggy hair. He’s a few years older than her, and a student at what he calls “the University of Life.” The setting is their break room at work.
Onwards. “She would already be at the sink with her back to him, and would take her time washing and rinsing one of three cracked cups that the Quik-Stop employees had to share.” Jamie slowly takes in the features he can see from behind: the long, dark ponytail that droops down to her butt; the legs, which “would not look too blotchy”; and the tattoo, a poorly drawn Pisces fish at her left ankle.
Already the reader is wincing at the steady accumulation of these tragic details—and Meredith hasn’t even turned around yet. We don’t want her to turn around, really, because the whole story relies on some kind of humour being generated by the disconnect between Meredith’s cockiness in her fantasy and her implied (so far) ugliness in real life. (As if unattractive people should be ridiculed for having even sexy daydreams!) We want to protect Meredith, instinctively, from the cruelty of her author.
But turn around she must. The supposedly comic disconnect now hits a boiling point: “their eyes would meet. Their attraction would be so intense he wouldn’t even notice her acne, her retainer or her puppy fat.”
The story continues, but I can’t shake how excessive and mean-spirited a punch line this is. What is the function of pointing out how pathetic Meredith’s life is, without any attempts whatsoever toward empathy, or understanding? At what point does Best become the high school cheerleader, sniggering at and doing impressions of the less popular kids in a goofy voice?
It’s worth pointing out that immediately following the daydream, a package of tripe drops and explodes all over Meredith’s sandal-clad feet. The poor girl’s whole universe is slanted mercilessly against her.
Sadly, this is not the only example of deluded losers having their delusions mocked in Bird Eat Bird. “Tall Food” is narrated by a clueless romantic on a second date with a man who’s obviously realizing the scope of his mistake. To the woman, however, it’s all going swimmingly. She fantasizes about the two of them growing old together; meanwhile he’s making lewd comments to the server about how she handles such a big pepper mill.
“Red” features a mentally ill woman who spends the entire story off her meds and gallivanting through downtown Montréal. At least here there’s a narrative effect at play—namely that she’s an unreliable narrator, and it takes a bit of time to realize that it’s her, and not, as she claims, her visiting sister, who needs medical help. The epiphany comes a good dozen pages earlier than Best supposes it does, but still.
The best story in Bird Eat Bird is, perhaps not coincidentally, its longest. Taking up one third of the entire collection, “At Sea” follows a married couple in their early 40s and their two young children on vacation to a beach in San Diego. Martin and Carol are worn down and unhappy with how safe and suburban their formerly radical lives have turned out. They’re still having the same petty fights, and they butt heads about how to parent. At the same time, both have delusions about their continued attractiveness to strangers of the opposite sex—Carol in particular only sees the light once her casual boogie-boarding adventure lands her way out in the open ocean, alone.
This story is the one that sinks its hooks in. Instead of Meredith and her cartoonish acne and retainer, Carol and Martin occupy a fuller, thoroughly more believable state of compromise. Their lives may well be tragic, but there’s a certain nobility in their struggling against the tide. In fact, they’re the only characters in this depressing, disposable collection worth rooting for at all.
Michael Hingston is a writer and editor who lives, for now, in Edmonton, Alberta. You can read his blog here. He is at work on his first novel."
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