Bird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As a kid I would often find myself awake in the middle of the night, alone in my room, in the dark, but would resist the temptation to open my eyes. I was terrified of what I might see, of what might conceivably be standing there just waiting for me to look at it.
Malorie lives in this same world, a world of darkness, and it has been nearly five years since her world has ended. At first, there were just rumors and scattered reports of people doing unimaginable harm to themselves. Soon however, the scattered reports become more frequent, and hysteria begins to spread. No one knows exactly what it is that is causing people to snap and kill themselves in such horrific ways, only that it has some correlation to something they have seen. To protect themselves, people begin putting blankets over their windows, boarding themselves indoors, and wearing thick glasses, helmets and blindfolds when they dare venture outside.
This book has a cruel and yet simple premise, Don’t Look! Which is very effective simply because it is nearly impossible to obey. It’s human instinct to look, even when you know that what you will see will destroy you. Malerman understands this instinct and delivers on this score in a big way. Really, wouldn’t humans be wiped out because we simply couldn’t look away from something?
I never particularly got much of a sense of who Malorie was as a person however. All we really seem to know about her life before the apocalypse is that she's in her twenties, lives with her sister, has no job, and at one point had a one night stand with a man whose name is mentioned only once in the book and who Malorie seems to barely think of at all despite the fact she's determined to have the child that he fathered. I also couldn’t keep from wondering how much more interesting and meaningful the story would have been if it had been narrated from the perspective of someone who had been born blind. Nevertheless, I have never felt the need to finish a book so fast before in my life. This is the kind of book that whispers softly, “come on….just a few more minutes….if you stay up until 2am we can probably just knock this out.” Despite this impulse however, nothing about the book felt rushed. Everything unfolded as it should have. The best books have a tendency to do just that, unfolding like a movie in the mind, with readers visualizing the events in living color, as they unfold in black and white on the page.
According to some interpretations, BirdBox exemplifies the fears that are associated with becoming a parent. Some have also said that it’s a scathing reflection on white privilege. While still others have claimed that it's a cautionary tale about social media. And plenty of readers have even argued that it's a faith-filled religious allegory. Malerman himself doesn’t really offer us any explanations however, especially concerning the creatures. What they are, where they came from, or even what they actually look like, is never addressed. Some reviewers have criticized this decision calling it a mistake, but really what was the alternative? It’s the ambiguity of the creatures that allows the reader the opportunity to project any meaning they want into the narrative. The most effective horror always eschews explanations for atmosphere and dread, using its tropes to expose the paranoia that thrums inside the brittle bones against which civilized society clings, leaving the reader to ponder newer, more compelling questions than the ones posed at the outset and I will always admire an author who knows when not to give answers.
My personal interpretation of the creatures is that they come to represent the dangers that nihilism poses for human existence and anyone brave enough to gaze into the abyss of nihilism will immediately be arrested with the desire for self-destruction.
Nietzsche characterizes nihilism as a philosophy that empty’s the world, and especially human existence, of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, and essential value. It’s a philosophy that maintains an extreme skepticism towards existence. That nothing in the world has any real value. It’s the belief that life is meaningless.
In order to relieve themselves of such a nightmarish view of life, those who are affected by the creatures are driven to the point of clinging to suicide for salvation from what has just been revealed to them. In this sense Malorie is quite literally running away from the seemingly inescapable impulse to kill herself. But she was also running away in search of hope, the only bulwark we have against nihilisms seductive appeal. Which just might be the most frightening aspect of the story.
It can however, be very difficult to hold onto hope in the face of such an overwhelming abnegation. Why not just end things now, and join the peaceful ranks of the deceased? Why not open other people’s eyes to that same terrible truth? It takes courage to hope and nihilism, as the story suggests, is not something that can be overcome by arguments or analyses, but rather is something that can only be tamed through it’s negation.
It is only when Malorie finally manages to reach the sanctuary, that she is comfortable enough in naming her children, safe in the hope that she has somehow escaped this nihilistic void and has been ushered back into a world full of life and of meaning. However, according to Donald A. Crosby, "Those who claim to find meaning in their lives are either dishonest or deluded. In either case, they fail to face up to the harsh reality of the human situation.”
So what would really happen if we were suddenly confronted with the truth…the real, unvarnished truth of the universe? I suspect that most people would feel compelled to kill themselves. While, perhaps a select few, would see the beauty in such a revelation. In any case, and for the moment at least, the most merciful thing in the world right now, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents.
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