Salvador Dalí famously depicted the persistence of memory with wilted clocks. But for Bird, the protagonist of short-story writer and University of Massachusetts Amherst creative-writing professor Noy Holland’s debut novel, what remains isn’t the sad, drooping remnant of time past but the sharp pangs of desire still pricking. These center on Mickey, the lover whose self-destructive tendencies almost took Bird’s life and whose habits — including heroin and unbridled emotions that verged on madness — destroyed their possible future. For Bird, it is the present that is nearly formless and through which she drifts in a haze.
“Bird,” a short, poetic book, treats memory as if it were more real, more solid than the present. Although her narrative’s opening and closing thoughts are of Mickey and the heightened life they led, Bird has moved on. Married, with an infant daughter and a young son, she has given up frenzied, and at times self-destructive, eroticism for mild domesticity. But this gentler life pales compared with Bird’s memories, and even as she prepares her husband’s breakfast and readies her son for school, she disassociates, seeing her “[m]ellow . . . [e]asy to love” husband as a stranger and herself in third person. “Bird loves him best in pictures,” she notes, “but what does this mean?”
Some of her current situation can be explained by her physical state. The present-day Bird telling this story is housebound, still recovering from a difficult pregnancy. But the Bird of her memories is frenetically mobile, recalling not only passion but a road trip worthy of Denis Johnson, full of Faulknerian characters and equally disturbing personal revelations. Unable to move much without pain, the current-day Bird exists in a near-dream state, leaking milk and tears as she vacillates between memories of wilder days and the almost painful love she bears her son. “May he be a boy always like Mickey was,” she says at one point, as if unaware of the conflicting nature of her desires.
The distinction between memory and present is accentuated by the book’s treatment of time. The contemporary story appears to cover one normal weekday, as Bird sends her son off and then waits for him to return from school. But her memories span months, as well as miles, and the headlong rush of her impressionistic reminiscences turn into present-tense accounts of a cold winter in an unheated apartment and hot sex in unlikely places. By the time she and Mickey hit the road, following the killing of their dog, it is clear they are doomed. “They were going to have to move and keep moving or else they were going down,” she recalls.
Through it all, her friend Suzy — a link to Bird’s past — acts as a chorus. Bitter and lonely, Suzy appears to be asking in her frequent phone calls for support, if not forgiveness, for numerous betrayals. But her comments on Bird’s current life cut deep, as she accuses her friend, with some validity, of making up stories. “Your mother club,” Suzy echoes back at her. “Your marriage. Your plain quiet shut-away life. It’s not enough but you can’t let on,” she says.
About Mickey, with whom she had her own affair, Suzy is even more brutal. “He’s like a drug they quit making. It’s tedious. You need to want something else.”
The question hanging over Bird, of course, is how can one change what one wants? In some ways, the present-day narrator now has what she had always desired: love and healthy children. In many ways, what she and Mickey shared, and share still in her mind, was defined by its transience. Even Bird recognizes that the limits on their affair accentuated its passion, asking herself, in the book’s emotional short-hand: “Was can’t last what made it bearable or can?”
It’s not a question she has an answer for, and neither she nor Holland try. Instead, what they give us is a meditation on desire. A short, bittersweet tale about how the longing for passion lives on, unsustainable in all but the persistence of memory.
By Noy Holland
Counterpoint, 176 pp., $24Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.