The Boy with a Bird in His Chest
(Atria Books , 2022)
When I sat down to read Emme Lund’s debut novel, The Boy with a Bird in His Chest, I was expecting to encounter a playfully didactic allegory; however, while the story is certainly playful and arguably didactic, I quickly realized that it was also much more: invitingly poetic, defiantly queer, and lyrical to boot. What I ultimately found (and relished) was a staunchly unorthodox coming-of-age tale dramatizing the tensions that can arise between connection and concealment, between our drive to be seen and our need to be safe.
Set in the present day between Puget Sound and a small fictional town in Montana, the novel charts the shared life course of its titular two characters (Owen the boy and Gail the bird) from birth through age seventeen. Much of its conflict centers around an antagonism between Owen and “the Army of Acronyms,” a phrase first coined by Owen’s mother that ultimately signifies something akin to “the patriarchy” or Foucauldian “power.” The term derives from medical licensing abbreviations: Owen’s mother is distrustful of the medical establishment as soon as Owen is born, regarding “each [specialist as] a soldier moving closer and closer to taking her boy away from her.” Rebuffing this medical military, she flees the hospital and indefinitely bars Owen from leaving the household. This edict proves predictably untenable, and much of the ensuing chapters concern Owen’s ongoing attempts to live a full life while evading the Army’s most insidious brigades (cops, bullies, Republicans), all of whom are seen as potentially fatal to both Owen and Gail should the latter ever be discovered.
Gail, for her part, feels decreasingly allegorical as the story unfolds. She is not a stand-in for Owen’s queerness (which is seen as less life-threatening); nor does she symbolize transness, insofar as she’s never associated with a desire on Owen’s part to transition. She loves cracking jokes, serves frequently as a voice of comfort, and at times feels twin-like in her constant companionable presence. She eventually (far from embodying Owen’s queer libido) comes actually to resemble his superego in that her function is often to advocate self-control: when Owen drunkenly tries to make out with his crush, Gail chirps admonishment (“Not the way to do it, bud”); when Owen is stunned to meet his uncle’s new girlfriend, Gail reminds him to be polite (“Shake her hand. And close your mouth”). As a result, the novel reads less like allegory and more like standard magical realism, an exploration of bird-chestedness per se rather than as a symbol of queerness.
Nevertheless, queerness and queer representation remain high-ranking narrative concerns. The book spotlights queer characters, investigates queer situations (bullying, anal, oral, risk-defying PDA), and explores queer themes (the desire for out-ness, distrust of conventional society), deftly evoking tropes while averting cliché. These queer-focused subplots are often both impactful and absorbing: they are relatable, they are thought-provoking, they prompt break-through moments with our therapists three days later. The focus on queerness is so resolute and affirming that when Owen’s mother eventually shows him that he isn’t the only boy on earth with an animal living inside, her words sound like a message from the novel itself to its queer readership: “I thought you should know that you’re not alone. There are plenty like you … It will be easier if you can find each other.” In this way, one crucial success of the book is that of reminding its queer and trans readers that our struggles and joys don’t exist in isolation.
Impediments arise only when we readers fall short in our ability to identify with Owen immediately. At times for better and at times arguably otherwise, the novel often opts not to explicitly render or contextualize certain emotions and thought processes, seemingly expecting that we’ll make the connections ourselves (and leaving us guessing should we fail to do so). Its portrayal of conventional medicine is one example: why did Owen’s mother feel so immediately skeptical of the medical establishment? What prompts this sentiment to evolve (as it eventually does)? To what extent is Owen ever truly in danger? Similarly, the book often suppresses Owen’s interior psyche by narrating with an amiable detachment, such as in this passage occurring just after Owen receives a disheartening call from his mother: “The panic quieted to the low rumble that was its constant. Owen had nightmares, well not nightmares, per se, since he wasn’t asleep. They weren’t daydreams, either, since daydreams implied happiness.” Rather than portraying Owen’s day-to-day panic in raw emotional terms, the narration chooses to veil it in whimsy, never cheapening Owen’s plight but asking us to imagine its depth on our own. Consequently, the book’s most poignant passages sometimes feel withholding: they present us with Owen and say “See? Isn’t this exactly what it’s like?” without spelling it out. This narrative strategy is enthralling when our answer is yes—it’s the pleasure of knowing exactly what your friend is thinking without anyone having to speak. But it can pose difficulties when our answer is no—it’s the strain of knowing that your friend is upset but refuses to tell you why.
What comes across regardless is the convincing portrayal of a magical alternate world, one which we are then enabled to compare against our own. This alternate world is queerer, joyous, and supple with meaningful detail. It’s also distinctly bifurcated (us versus them, queer versus Army of Acronyms, those who get it versus those who don’t). If The Boy with a Bird in His Chest has any message for us, then, it’s perhaps that our divisions need never preclude our joy (or our literary satisfactions).