Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
I had the feeling I was going to like this debut short story collection long before I had it in my hands. For one thing, the cover is a delightful shade of green (or maybe blue), and for another, there’s a picture of an owl on the front, with a little classification label bearing the word “stories.”
Bergman is a writer who thinks a lot, and the entire collection moves around the same sorts of thought processes. On the macro side there is climate change, environmental degradation, more climate change. On the micro, we have family relationships, frequently affected and even determined by the global concerns. There are stories about vets, animal rescuers, animal lovers, people with too many pets. There are dissections of the relationships between parents and their grown children, people about to become parents, couples drawn together or pushed apart by their attitudes towards the world around them. The story “Yesterday’s Whales,” perhaps the best—the funniest and the grimmest–in the collection, is about two population-control activists who make one crucial slip on the birth-control front. It opens like this:
I’ve been told self-righteous people always have it coming, that when you profess to understand the universe, the universe conspires against you. It gathers and strengthens and thunders down upon you like a biblical storm. It buries your face in humble pie and licks the cream from your nose because when the universe hates you, it really hates you.
Which is, I think, a wonderful first paragraph. The accidental pregnancy begins to drive a wedge between the couple, and the characters in the story are almost like two different sides of one person, someone caught between absolutism and real life. Like the two different sides of many of us, I would hazard, as we fall into those potholes of wondering how we can possibly carry on living, driving, buying, having children, reading books, going on holiday and all the rest of it instead of being driven demented by what the future holds, and then as we clamber out of the pothole to spend the rest of our time getting sucked along by the relentless forward motion of life, unable to ever quite grasp enough of the bigger picture to do anything about it.
Megan Mayhew Bergman and Lauren Groff are part of a newish movement of young American writers dealing with environmental issues in a literary rather than, say, apocalyptic way, and steering a straight course between melodrama and paralysed panic. At the end of the day, Bergman’s writing all comes down to the dilemma we face without even noticing it every second: in a contest between the needs of our families, our selves, our loved ones and the needs of the entire population, human and animal, which one wins?
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