Happiness is so elusive it may as well be supernatural

Dear Marie-Helene,

Much of the disturbing, off-kilter sense of humour in Parakeet: A Novel (2020) comes from a finely-drawn contrast between the strong sense of reality in which the events of the novel are grounded and the dream logic governing them throughout the book.

A week before our protagonist’s wedding, she is visited by her dead grandmother in the form of a cynical, sharp-tongued parakeet. “Those of us with able bodies have a responsibility to use them as much as we can. Given another chance, you wouldn’t believe how I’d use it. Threesomes. Foursomes. Moresomes. Smoking is a joy of life. Good lord, why did I ever give it up? My teachers called me disruptive.

The grandmother gives her a mission (or a curse): to call off the wedding and search for her estranged brother, Tom. “If you can’t respect a dead woman’s wishes you’re a disgrace. Mark my words. If you defy me, shit’s going to get fucked up. After it gets fucked up, it’s gonna stay fucked up. And after you can no longer bear it, it’s gonna get more fucked up. The things you do to make it less fucked up are going to fuck it up even more”, jinxes the parakeet. Then, it flies away – but not before defecating all over the wedding dress.

The story is narrated by our protagonist, a 36-year-old woman described as ‘ethnically ambiguous’ and referred to only as ‘the Bride’. We learn that her grandmother was driven to emigrate to the USA from the Basque country after getting pregnant from a Romany; that the Bride, who works as a biographer for people with traumatic brain injuries, was victim of an anti-immigrant attack on a coffee shop; that she is going to marry a man she doesn’t love (referred to as the Groom); and that the Bride’s brother is a reclusive playwright who wrote a play called ‘Parakeet’, based on our protagonist’s life. “My family: a complex system of dark islands seen from land”, the Bride says. As her grandmother had predicted, Tom no longer exists; but our protagonist will find a sister.

The parakeet’s visit is the catalyst of a series of events that keep getting weirder and weirder. We keep asking ourselves whether it is a case of suspension of disbelief, or whether we are stuck inside the narrator’s mind while she is experiencing some kind of dissociation, perhaps as a result of trauma. There is a sense of distortion, of wandering through different timelines, or experiencing everything at once. When asked by the hotel concierge why she looked sad, the Bride explained that her grandmother had died. “‘When?’ ‘Ten years ago.’

On her unexpected visit in the form of a bird, the grandmother asked what the internet was (this was also the last question the grandmother had asked our protagonist, before her death 10 years ago). “People use it to promote themselves like brands”, the Bride answers. “Because everyone is famous, no one is.” She adds: “When you can see anyone at any hour, it collapses perspective and time. Add to that the isolation and distance from which most people observe, and the Internet gives the impression that one person is simultaneously having a party, turning fifty, scuba diving, baking with a great aunt.” And the grandmother replies: “Sounds like a giant panic attack.” Sounds like the Bride’s journey in this novel, too.

Our protagonist seems to be slipping further away from reality, as she sleepwalks toward her wedding. Time and place seem distorted, and people come in and out of different identities. Trauma changes one’s experience of the passage of time and moves independent of logic – and so does the narrative here. “The mean trick of trauma is that like a play it has no past tense. It is always happening.” Is the Bride stuck at a point where she keeps, in a way or another, re-experiencing a series of traumatic events – like in her brother’s play? “There is no memory in a play. A play is always present tense. I am newly injured in real time.

Is Tom’s play a crystallization of the Bride’s trauma? Or is it the representation of a false memory? The Bride is refracted into a series of images – her counterpart in the play, but also the image she projects to her family, the social roles she is impelled to inhabit, and the expectations she is supposed to conform to. You put this topic under a prism and then use its absurd refractions to build this narrative. And it works.

When buying a second-hand wedding dress, the Bride meets a woman who looks like a doppelgänger, an alternate-timeline version of herself, married to her former lover. While Tom’s play offers an alternative version of her past, the protagonist’s wedding unfolds as a theatrical performance. In another Kafkaesque scene, the Bride wakes up trapped in her mother’s body (who, to her surprise, is full of sexual fantasies). Elevators break and deliver our protagonist to strange places (or, perhaps, alternate realities), and corridors twist into a labyrinth: “Every elevator in this building is a Borgesian nightmare.” A Chekhovian gun will be shot. Beckett will be mentioned. The Bride will drift further into unreality – or parallel reality.

There is a scene where our protagonist reminisces about her childhood, and tells the story of a flock of parakeets that arrived in the USA as accidental immigrants (much like her grandmother). “Every time I saw one as a child was a holiday.” A parakeet is what she sees later, at a slant, from a window, on the occasion of the attack. Throughout the book, the narrator’s choice of words often refers to birds: “my heart beats solid in its cage”; “I am a bird trapped inside another person’s life, sensing its mistake and trying to exit against relentless glass”; “I hold my sister’s hand, a small, precious bird”.

Everything can happen in the gap between the strangeness of the events described in the novel and the matter-of-factness of the way the narrator describes them. A brutal scene is juxtaposed to an uneventful culinary show, and it reads as if the narrator were seeing everything from afar, as a spirit hovering over her body, or a bird perched on a tree outside.

The parakeet is a character, the name of a play, the title of this book, and also a metaphor. Much like the Bride, it drifts in and out of different timelines – and different meanings. It embodies something the Bride loved, and something that is meant to transform her (much like love itself). We are invited to read the metaphor as literal: something elusive and absurd, a winged thing flying off its cage, changing everything, and stopping nowhere.

Yours truly,

J.


Iconographie des perroquets : non figurés dans les publications de Levaillant et de M. Bourjot Saint-Hilaire, 1857

“In reality, happiness is so elusive it may as well be supernatural.” ― Marie-Helene Bertino, Parakeet

*

“There are intimacies that don’t involve marriage just as there are marriages that don’t involve intimacy. The mind provides the only possible privacy so what is more intimate than thought? If intimacy is marriage, I’m married to anyone I’ve carried in my mind.” ― Marie-Helene Bertino, Parakeet


About the book

  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, 240 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars

 

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