Friday, October 2, 2009

TM Wright's I Am The Bird

"I Am The Bird" is stated often, even insisted upon, in Terry M. Wright's luminous novel of the same name, but that doesn't make it so. In fact (a word too absolute for this book), nothing at all is certain in Mr. Wright's universe of dread.

Max Gorshen appears to be confined to his apartment, and he hints at there being reasons why -- at least physically -- he can't leave. You don't hear the squeak of a wheelchair, and he does run to the Big Apple store next door now and then, but there is a bittersweet memory lingering of a car accident long ago, and a steering column with a mind of its own. I repeat: none of this is certain; these are reconstructed memories written aloud.

In previous works by the author such as A Manhattan Ghost Story and The Playground, the dead loitered, stranded in a limbo of unreliable memories and abruptly canceled desires.

The skeleton of these novels was a more conventional narrative (relatively speaking) in which ordinary characters brushed shoulders with the extraordinary. Recently, Mr. Wright's explorations of memory, desire, mortality and sanity (just what is that exactly? he asks) have taken up residence beyond anything resembling a conventional, "commercial" narrative. I AM THE BIRD and Blue Canoe have their foundation pillars sunk solidly into the mind itself. It's the mind as a bubbling bog, a steaming sucking pit of conflict, contradictions, paranoia, and pure, primitive sexuality. The upshot for the reader is exhilaration.

It is no great shock that Ramsey Campbell has attempted an introduction to this rare tablet of literature.

Ramsey Campbell

In books like The Face That Must Die, he, too, trained his pen on the decaying mind, and death as a lingering aroma. "Insanity is a way of not being left alone," he writes. "Suppose death is indistinguishable from insanity?" In I AM THE BIRD, it is, and only that seems to be certain. "Is writing an act of denial?" he concludes, raising a terribly relevant point, and succeeding in deciphering the key (possibly) to Max Gorshen's process.

The narrative is shared by three voices, although shared is a little too polite. Better to say they jostle for position. Gorshen occupies the narrative limelight initially, but the insularity of his permanent night sweats is broken by (another) man who resides in his hallway and an African parrot who shares his living room. These folks may or may not be an unholy trinity, and it is to Mr. Wright's credit that their relationship is never defined beyond reasonable doubt. It is choices like these that make the work of this author so unique, infuriating, and immensely satisfying.

While lapping up this literary feast, I was reminded of a short, animated film about death and memory. It was part of the anthology Allegro Non Troppo, and focused on a cat who visits the semi-demolished apartment block where he lived long ago.

As he roams through the spaces where life once existed, his memories ignite momentarily and become real enough to experience once more.

It is a beautiful film, and its final revelation is sad and apt. It presents us with the idea that memories can exist separately from our selves, and are capable of breaking away from us like a branch from a tree. And surviving. In I AM THE BIRD, memory may be all that survives, and though it is rewritten, reshaped, and deceived by our unreliable (and failing senses) senses, it is our identity.

Like every character in it, the book's title is not to be trusted. The "I" is heavily underlined and represents a battle for control and superiority. The three story tellers, who may be one split unevenly into three, work hard to prove their legitimacy, and seem destined to struggle eternally. They suffer because of memory, because of need, because of ego. They've learned to vocalize, but they haven't learned to harmonize.

Of course, though the world of Max Gorshen is closing in and petrifying, he finds time and energy to contemplate masturbation and fornication. Like the last oxygen bubble burped from a drowning man, his sexual impulse further clouds his brain as it (falsely) promises a vacation from the madness. His rumination on the bird Langley's sexual habits provides one of the book's funniest passages:

As highly intelligent as he (Langley) so obviously is, his brain is set up only for mating (on the fly, so to speak, quickly and efficiently, but without the sort of tender, love, affection and need that we humans find so appealing and necessary), and then it quickly moves on to equally important, though separate matters -- eluding predators, finding nuitritious vegetation and edible insects.

In this, Gorshen may be acknowledging the complexity of human needs while admiring (and envying perhaps?) the lack of BS clogging the arteries of the animal kingdom. If only it were that simple for us?

Few writers of the fantastique get to the marrow of what it is to be born and die slowly over a lifetime. For Terry Wright, this is his territory, and he knows it like a caddie knows every club in a golf pro's bag.

Self portrait of Mr. Wright

In I AM THE BIRD, he mines the mental escarpment and documents the drawbacks of radical changes in elevation. Nobody does it better.


The 2006 edition of TM Wright's I AM THE BIRD from UK-based PS Publishing is a beautifully presented literary country that is well worth your discovery.


  1. Another great review of another great work by Mr. Wright. Most writers who have been around for as long as Terry has, generally have their best work behind them. In T.M. Wright's case, he simply gets better and better, like a fine wine, he improves with age. And like that wine, he is best savored and sipped rather than gulped down all at once.

    Okay, maybe not the greatest metaphor, but his work continually leaves me at a loss for words.

  2. Scott -- yes, me, too. He's in a brand new phase of his writing. It's very exciting.