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Review: Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds Is a Collection of Searing Epiphanies

Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure.

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Mouthful of Birds

In Mouthful of Birds, Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin lifts up reality and hurls it elsewhere. An aunt in one story seeks “the most arcane side of the simplest things,” and Schweblin is up to something similar. In the worlds she’s devised, one’s eyes can quickly alight upon something deeply weird. The teenager in the title story blithely rises from the couch and, to her father’s horror, devours a live sparrow. In “The Size of Things,” the owner of a toy shop finds his inventory has been rearranged overnight. It’s the work of Enrique Duvel, a troubled man who, with the owner’s reluctantly granted permission, spent the night inside the shop. The question of Enrique, with his fastidious artistry and childlike fascinations, ultimately contracts toward a fleeting, irrational sight—like a shimmer out of some unsettling dream.

Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure. In a recent interview with Electric Literature, Schweblin explained that her process is driven more by emotion than plot. Indeed, intensities of feeling and portent encircle these tales like a thickening mist that’s never thuddingly dispelled by a simple twist or tidy resolution.

This is finely shown in “Underground,” in which Schweblin again conveys the act of seeing as something profoundly urgent and difficult. Its embedded tale, told to the narrator by an old man, concerns a child who discovers a small growth in the ground. “It wasn’t much,” the old man notes, “but it seemed like enough to him.” Following the discovery, a kind of obsessive-compulsive fervor overtakes the child and his cohort. They begin to ritualistically dig at the spot every day. Then the children and the hole vanish. And the gazes of their parents, once uncomprehending or averted, become desperately watchful. They begin to dig into the earth, searching, and later hear scrabbling noises rising up from beneath the floors of their homes.

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The old man’s story ends abruptly, with much of its mystery still intact. And, while telling the story, he digresses to consider the hazards of everyday life: the risks, which, in their innumerable permutations, outstrip our preemptive scrutiny, and can at times resemble some larger metaphysical cruelty. Aspects like these moor the book to recognizable neuroses and anxieties—to the terrors of uncertainty. In a more precise sense, “Underground,” like a number of stories in the collection, presents a uniquely parental nightmare. It extends the work of Fever Dream, Schweblin’s 2014 debut novel. (As with Mouthful of Birds, it was translated into English by Megan McDowell.) The forensic odyssey of that novel is oriented around the urgently recalled memories of a dying mother, whose need to shield her young daughter from harm is repeatedly expressed. “I need to get out in front of anything that could happen,” the mother says at one point, as she remembers her first night in a new home, “but everything is very dark and my eyes never get used to the darkness.”

Mouthful of Birds restores something of Fever Dream’s somnambulant rhythm and furtive prose. Schweblin again distends suspenseful searches and approaching crises; such aspects, in exhilarating or unnerving ways, often seem to be interminably unfurling. Her writing can bring to mind the disconcerting power of Inger Stevens, in The Twilight Zone’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” pensively driving along roads, both chasing and eluding some terrible truth. In “Rage of Pestilence,” Schweblin introduces a census taker who arrives at a border town, and who seems to know that something will go wrong—and something does, something has. He detects “the townspeople behind the windows and doors,” and notices “the back of a little boy leaning against a post; a dog’s tail poking out from the doorway of a house.” The details accumulate slowly and mesmerically. Its disturbing ending is like a secret that erupts and recedes at once.

In that story—as in other sterling examples, like “Toward Happy Civilization” or “The Digger”—it’s as if the protagonist is lost within an esoteric game. Mouthful of Birds, in this respect, would pair well with The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioys Casares, which Schweblin has cited as an inspiration. Certain “miraculous” visitors interrupt the solitude of that novel’s fugitive islander. He closely studies them, and the odd game that appears to be afoot. He begins, also, to think of the “weight that keeps you from running away in dreams,” and “the figures that appear, according to Leonardo, when we look fixedly at damp spots on a wall for any length of time.” Schweblin’s storytelling captures similar feelings and ideas. In “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” for example, she limns one man’s fundamental myopia by pointing out his inability to apprehend the “millions of shifting particles” in any given object.

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And it’s a stray object, fixedly regarded, that catalyzes one of the more searing epiphanies in Mouthful of Birds. It’s found in “My Brother Walter,” a story about the depressed title character and the success of his entrepreneurial family. Walter, we learn, is a quiet and sedentary fixture at his family’s barbecues. His relatives vaguely derive something from his presence. They also try to address his wellbeing but mostly in perfunctory ways. Schweblin is here examining how the good fortune and happiness of most of the members of this family collide with Walter’s debilitating sadness, and how this creates incongruities that can sometimes seem like darkly absurd jokes. “The business grows,” the narrator, Walter’s brother, says at one point, “and my son turns two years old. When I put him in Walter’s arms, my son smiles and claps and says, ‘I’m happy, I’m so happy.’”

When the son drops a garland during another celebration, Walter breaks out of his stasis. He reaches for the object. The narrator, taken aback, tries to describe his alarm: “Walter looks at the garland, seeming to study it with too much attention, and for a moment everything seems confused to me.” From there, the complacency of the narrator violently disintegrates. He plunges, fast, toward untapped reservoirs of empathy and fear. Cultural gaps are considered elsewhere in the book, but this story affirms that Schweblin is also contemplating a variety of interpersonal and existential gaps. “I think we don’t understand the other in general,” she stated recently, in the aforementioned interview, in which she also discussed the power of suddenly being able to behold another person or object “as if for the first time.” In another interview, she acknowledged her tendency to create characters who “don’t understand what’s going on around them or how to get out of the situations they’re in.”

In keeping with Schweblin’s comments, the characters in Mouthful of Birds often fail to comprehend others, and even parts of themselves. But all of this can be upended, for however brief and startling an interval, by something as simple as a dropped garland. And then the familiar becomes like frail gossamer, and disperses through the delicate force of a glance.

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Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is now available from Riverhead Books.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

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As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

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Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

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Should Win: First Man

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