September 3, 2012

"Birnam Wood"

By T. Coraghessan Boyle
~7000 words

A substitute teacher and his underemployed girlfriend house-sit at a lakefront mansion.

The first-person narrative begins with the main character, Keith, and his girlfriend Nora living in a summer rental described as "a converted chicken coop from a time long gone." Despite the squalid conditions, when the lease runs out they have nowhere else to go and remain on the premises as squatters until a friend puts them in touch with a wealthy couple looking for house sitters at an exclusive lake called Birnam Wood. After moving in to the new place Nora lands a part-time job as a bartender, which leads to the introduction of a new character, Steve, who shows up at the house one evening with a poem he has written for Nora. Keith storms out and ends up walking across the frozen lake and spying on a couple in a house on the other side.

An intriguing feature of this story is the way in which the narrator withholds more than the customary amount of information. When does the story take place? We know only that it is some point after 1969 (the publication date of Slaughterhouse Five, which Keith and Steve discuss on one occasion), "when people our age wore beads and serapes and cowboy boots and grew their hair long for the express purpose of sticking it to the bourgeoisie." What is the history of the relationship between Keith and Nora? We know only that he "sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back." Why are they so desperate for cash? We know only that neither of them much like their jobs. Where is Birnam Wood? We know only that it's somewhere with lakes that freeze solid enough for a man to walk across. What happens between Nora and Steve? That is left completely up for grabs, for the story ends before Keith returns home.

This is a puzzling and ultimately uneven story. The plot is quirky and interesting, but its meandering nature (first the chicken coop, then Birnam Wood, then Steve, then the odd ending) combined with the obliqueness of the background information produces an unsettling—though not necessarily undesirable—effect. The language is generally good, but the narrative voice comes across as strangely subdued. It's never really clear what, exactly, is at stake for the main character. He says he wants to provide for Nora, but the passivity of his reactions and his flaky behavior in the end would seem to betray his words. 

"Birnam Wood" is somewhere between weak and satisfactory, probably a bit closer to the latter.


Reader poll: I found "Birnam Wood" to be ___.

No comments:

Post a Comment