Portrait of a Woman in Glass
January 22, 2011
It is a thrill to meet people you admire, and even better when you realize very quickly that you’re friends. I met Laura Jacobs, dance writer extraordinaire – if you’re not familiar with her work, read this piece on Jewels now – through James Wolcott, for whom I shan’t attempt a description. We discovered a mutual passion around Ann Baxter’s louche portrayal of the pharoah’s queen in The Ten Commandments, and we were off to the races.
But it’s also daunting when someone whose non-fiction work you greatly admire gives you her novel. I wanted to like it; what if I didn’t? I read a fair amount of fiction when I’m on a fiction tear, and I’m not of the school that commits to finish a book no matter what. On top of that, the book is about…taxidermy? And birds. Argh. Dad hunted. I grew up in a home with a grizzly bear, elk, mountain goat, a mallard, and various large fish on the walls; when my brother and I were very young, we would dare each other to touch the eyes, then scream at the cold slippery surface, pretending we hadn’t figured out it was glass. (It was, after all, such fun to scream.)
I wasn’t actually on a fiction tear when Laura gave me The Bird Catcher, and I didn’t want to use her book to get myself back into one. After all, reading a longer narrative takes a particular type of energy and concentration. On top of that, I was still enjoying Landscape with Moving Figures, the collection of Laura’s dance essays that is as rich as Teuscher truffles; she’s a precise, intensely descriptive writer, and I would take an hour to read a 3-5 page piece, savoring and rereading lines and paragraphs, my head aswirl with imagery as if I’d fallen into a painting.
So I started reading Bird in the same manner, carefully, slowly – and realized that as much as I was enjoying the process, this was no way to read a novel; it was resisting the narrative pull, as if I was insisting on walking when the surface under me demanded I skate. Still, in the month before the Thanksgiving break, I continued in that fashion, knowing I was going about it all wrong but unable to reset.
Finally with a few days off, I managed to break through the fiction wall via, of all things, 2 sex scenes. The first, in which Margret, the protagonist (I love that spelling of her name, by the way; I always want to pronounce it “Mar-gray,” and just the fact that there’s no a between the g and the r makes me feel like the name and the character are different, and need to be regarded with care) bumps into the guy she first knew in the biblical sense, and it is laugh out loud funny. Within a few pages, Margret and the love of her life, Charles, are together alone for the first time – and I was in tears. That scene has to be one of, if not the, most lovely depictions of intimacy, the real deal, that I’ve ever read. Of course, part of its brilliance is its placement in contrast with the bumbling episode that’s preceded it. I went back and read it again. Then I went back and read the book at the pace I should have been reading all along, drinking like a thirsty person, no longer sipping.
The narrative has a silken logic; like all good novels, it coaxes you into its web, and you stay of your own volition, reading without effort. Margret is a window dresser, an art form that can maybe only be truly valued by New Yorkers, and the peek into that under-glass world is fascinating. The creative process behind it is similar to coming up with an ad campaign, but the execution is so much more painstaking: the windows are mini-productions. The all-absorbing, hypnotic yet tedious quest to get every detail perfect that’s the heart of any production is captured, as well as the curious temperaments that seem to always be drawn to this type of work.
It also sets the stage for the passion that will heal Margret after a crisis: taxidermy as art. It would be difficult to write that phrase with a straight face if it hadn’t been incorporated into the story so naturally, seamlessly. Artistic technique, the pure nuts and bolts of producing something beautiful, can be deadly dull or fascinating, depending on the skill of the writer; here, it’s riveting, even weirdly suspenseful. Will she make the cut over the sternum exactly right, or will she slip by a millimeter? It’s a lovely thing when you realize you’re holding your breath while you read.
All takes place in a New York that anyone who loves the city will recognize; it’s like vintage Woody Allen, deep love of the city and its characters infusing every moment. New Yorkers are rare birds themselves, able to survive and filter the extreme sensory bombardment of the mean yet beautiful streets and somehow be able to find their own quiet centers amid the chaos. True New Yorkers are so often from someplace else; Margret, like Laura, hails from Chicago, and Charles, her husband, is Syrian, but both are as much a part of the city fabric as the city is part of them. The Bird Catcher is a tribute not just to those of us who have that great city entwined into our DNA, but to anyone who sees the beauty, the potential of a small, broken, feathered body on the sidewalk – to become art.