The latest collapse of civilization in Josh Malerman’s crafty debut, BIRD BOX, comes by way of “the Problem,” a tantalizingly non-specific apocalyptic force bedevilling the ever-dwindling remnants of humankind. The novel’s cold open finds Malorie and (her?) two children–Boy and Girl–prepping for an escape from the house they’ve been trapped in for years.
Gruffly counseling the children on what to bring, and how to behave once on the river heading south toward an uncertain refuge, Malorie securely fastens blindfolds over their eyes and they clutch one another as they fumble through the yard. And they listen, acutely aware of every crack and rustle, unsure what may be standing just beyond their reach.
That uncertainty underpins BIRD BOX’s considerable tension and organizes its larger narrative structure as well as some phenomenal action set-pieces. After beginning in the years following the fall, Malerman shifts back and forth between pre- and post-apocalypse. The initial hints of disaster come in news reports of unmotivated violence. People see something and suddenly turn on passersby, family members, the news media covering the epidemic of homicidal, horrific rage. The murders are quickly followed by the perpetrators’ equally bloody suicide. These events are filtered through the local, limited viewpoints of Malorie and her sister, Shannon, at first skeptical, then intrigued, and ultimately boxed in. As the plague expands and ultimately envelops the world, the only clear protection it seems is to not see. Malorie and Shannon board up the windows and venture out nervously, driving to the local store with eyes closed for long stretches on the abandoned roads, hoping to avoid a glance of . . . whatever.
BIRD BOX is less concerned with the mystery–or revelation–of the cause than in the implications of that concept: what if it was dangerous to see? Malerman literalizes such dangers: as children, when confronted with the most terrifying image, we cover our eyes, and the novel traps us there, feeling like children anxiously trying not to see. (This concept also pays sly homage to the consequences of the deadly plague of blindness in THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS.)
He then manages to delightfully wrack every last nerve by capturing what it’s like when our eyes are closed and we’re beset by all that other sensory data. Malorie ends up in a house–this is one of those last-house-small-frazzled-community apocalypses–and struggles to get by as food supplies decrease, as relationships fray, as the Problem continues to scrape along the side of the house. (The bird box of the title refers to an actual small aviary placed outside the home, whose inhabitants coo and chirp whenever something wanders by, freaking out Malorie et al.) Malerman manages to juggle the abstractedness of the horrific uncertain thing with very concrete, descriptive prose and plot points: instead of elaborate end-time philosophizing, there’s the grounded minutiae of daily survival.
There’s an architectural precision to the novel that heightens its many pleasures — the temporal back-and-forth each chapter leaves questions lingering, driving the reader forward; that interplay of “what we don’t know about what’s out there” versus the grounded depiction of what is heard, felt, and sensed puts the reader pretty squarely in the frame, our own uncertainties echoing Malorie’s. As I read late one evening, I found my attention heightened, every creak in the house perhaps a sign of something there. It is perhaps unsurprising that a musician–Malerman is one of the lead singers for The High Strung–would produce such a compelling exploration of how sound affects us. Or that a guy with such a talent for power-pop harmonies would design a thrilling entertainment built on the careful orchestration of different narrative strands. BIRD BOX doesn’t really reimagine the end-of-the-world, but the sly repetition of familiar tropes in new keys is a delight. —Mike Reynolds