Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Kevin Canty’s “Story, With Bird” was originally published in the October 6, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
I hope everyone will welcome Betsy back from holiday :-) . I have read “Story, with Bird,” but it didn’t really do much for me. As usual, Betsy has really engaged with the work, so I’ll bow out for now (but will perhaps engage in the comments), and welcome her back with enthusiasm!
I liked “Story, With Bird” a lot, but I have mixed feelings about the title. In his interview with Cressida Leyshon earlier this week (here), Canty says, “Somebody once described the form of the short story as “a thing and another thing.” True enough that the title sums up that instruction. I don’t have a better title than the one he gave it, but I like the story enough that I feel the lack. Canty has three books of short stories, and if some of them are as good as this one, then I want to read them. I am sort of thinking that after writing fifty or so stories that Canty feels he was owed this one — to point to the fact that this is for sure a model story, maybe his best one. But I miss the real title.
One thing I loved about this story is that it is so immediate I keep thinking it is his story, that he’s the guy telling the story. No, I correct myself, this is fiction, and so the guy has to have a name. It’s only when I search for the narrator’s name that I realize it’s another he and she story, but I think it works so well that I’m totally okay with that. Even though this couple is nothing like the couple I am half of, or only a little like us, their story feels like my story, and so Canty has pulled off the universal/he/she/no/names thing. How does he do this?
For one thing, I think he conveys that the guy thinks his girlfriend is really beautiful — but without ever describing her. Now, what women want, among other things, is to be thought beautiful. And I got that. There’s also the fact that in no place in this story do the lesser forms of rage creep in — neither resentment or grudge or contempt ever enter in, even though this is a woman who breaks off. I loved the purity of that. He’s writing about beauty — hers — theirs — theirs in the fullness of what they could be.
At the same time, he is also writing about a woman who has a quick temper, a high anxiety level, an inclination to drink, and who at the end of the affair cheats on him. So we are dealing with a flesh and blood woman with a few issues, which he does not dwell on — which is perhaps one of the points of the story. Canty leaves that up to the reader to divine.
I hate real estate porn as a device in fiction. What Canty does is something entirely different, entirely opposite. He conveys respect and affection and a sense of this woman’s beauty when he says of where they lived: “It was a very pretty place, and we had furnished it together, though it was more her taste than mine.” For a man to be comfortable with a woman’s need for pretty is a man who thinks his woman is beautiful. For a man to even use “pretty” to describe the place where he has lived takes the courage born of the beauty he sees in this woman. He thought she was great.
But he doesn’t even talk about this place until he has to leave it.
Before that, he conveys how beautiful this woman is, and how beautiful they can be together, with his description of the heights of sex they could reach together. He does this is a totally non-Updike-ian way. He does not describe, like an explorer, curious aspects of her body, as if he is using her to display himself and his machismo in the locker room. No, he describes sex with her as an experience they have together, and rather than it being a technical feat, he tells us what it was like. It was like something rare, unusual, blessed, and humble. Both of them, the guy and girl, had a sexual experience that made them feel humbled and graced at the same time and that is how I know he thought this woman was really beautiful.
Oh, the powers of metaphor — in this case, something to do with a deer.
And that is not the only metaphor. There is, of course, the bird. It had a “yellow breast and a round black spot on top of its head, as if it were wearing a beret.” I take my worn Sibley off the shelf and it falls open, of all things, to Wilson’s warbler, who looks just like this. I’m a terrible birder — that’s why my Sibley is so broken, I have to look everything up every time. Maybe if I had a bird book that caught the bird’s essence, in words, the way Canty catches this bird, I would do a little better. “As if it were wearing a beret” — that’s something I’ll remember.
I mention this uncanny way the book falls open to this page because that moment paralleled the way the story itself made me feel — that everything about it, the story — was natural, believable. The way the book fell open in its uncanny way matched the way Canty’s writing just felt to me like a real man talking, talking at his most real, talking from the center. Which, after all, you don’t get every day.
I love the way the man gentles the bird that has gotten caught in the house . . . how he reveals to us how good he is with the physical, why, in fact the sex is so good. It’s not just that the woman is beautiful and fiery, it’s that the man has the capacity to gentle things.
But then: there’s what’s not working between the two. Canty has it so right. “We were just at the point where everything is a contest — the right way to do the dishes, drive a car, chase a bird out of the room.” Match that truth up against the bird caught in the house and you have the violence they both feel about what’s not working between them.
And then there’s the drinking. They both drink a lot and they both like the excess it gives them — it seems like the fighting that results also leads to a lot sex as well. But the reader notices the way the narrator edges around one of things going on in the story, that the drinking is a problem. The woman even says so: drinking is a problem for him. I love the way the Wilson’s warbler that gets trapped in the house relates to the drinking.
Drinking is a trap, dealing with someone who drinks too much is a trap, and, of course, the thing that makes a person drink too much is another trap. So the trapped bird illuminates this situation too. We really don’t know what it is that the man has going on in his life that is a trap that lets him think that drinking makes things better, but with the Auden and the fact that they both work at home, I get the sense that he’s a writer, that, in fact, they’re both writers. And he admits that when he isn’t drinking, he gets more work done.
“I have since stopped drinking for reasons of my own.” Oh how he slips this in. This reminds me of the bird as well.
This slight story works like a poem. It is about a dozen things at once, how they all interact. The man remembers losing this woman, her beauty, their beauty, the drinking, the way they “fought like two cats in a bag,” and the drift that is somehow at work in his work. We get the sense, so very clearly, that this story is about him realizing something so very very hard: that he was the one with the problem. So the story is about love and loss and being wrong and seeing your way to understanding that. And yet, at the same time, the reader knows what’s wrong is not just him. It’s just that he is old enough, we suspect, to have learned the very hard truth: the only one you can fix is yourself. But Canty says it so beautifully, so crisply, that I pay attention.
That’s what I love about this story. That I can pay attention to it, every sentence, even though it is talking about getting life right — something that requires humility — and most of us never get there.
Which is why I also love this story. This guy kicks it. Who don’t we know — who haven’t we known — we wish could kick some trap, some habit? This guy does. Is the habit not working? Is it getting involved with beautiful, difficult women? Is it his own drinking?
In the long string of addiction stories that The New Yorker has been running this year, this one is a needed tonic. One has to have some faith it’s possible, and one of the things this story does is speak to faith. I mean faith in people, faith in nature, faith in volition.