You Don’t Want It Darker
Dirty Birds, Morgan Murray. Breakwater, 2020.
Whether Morgan Murray set out to write his first novel to a philosophical notion or found convenient quotations after the fact to serve as his epigraphs, Dirty Birds is a whip-smart, structurally coherent romp that dresses its satire in the weeds of comic mayhem. It is difficult to believe that Murray did not have Jean Baudrillard’s theories of hyperreality, for example, foremost in mind as he nudged his protagonist, Milton Ontario, out of the nest of Bellybutton, Saskatchewan, and pointed him in the direction of Montréal. A Bildungsroman, the form Dirty Birds appears from the outset most likely to follow, traditionally takes naïve youth on a tortuous journey towards maturity and self-awareness. Milton, on the other hand, “Milton of Nowhere,” as the book’s first section-title suggests, learns nothing in his travels except that his country is interminably vast and populated by people who have no intention of growing up. The Canada of this improbable story is a rarefied Disneyland North where, despite the author’s magpie-keen eye for quirky cultural detail, nothing is quite as real as it should be.
Arriving at his Craigslist-acquired rental accommodation after a three-day bus ride, looking and smelling like a homeless person, many of his scant belongings having been lost en route, Milton not surprisingly is barred entrance, an inauspicious beginning to his spirit quest to become the next Leonard Cohen. Milton believes that he has the soul of a poet, which might be true in so far as he feels intensely, except that the poetry he scribbles and stuffs into his pockets is consistently bad. What he will come to feel most acutely is infatuation for Robin, a documentary filmmaker whose banal depiction of seagulls living off a trash heap in Calcutta is widely accepted to be a work of genius. This leads us to exception number two: Robin is as much a poseur as all the other avant-garde puppeteers-cum-baristas and millennial wage-slaves slumming it in the Montreal of late 2007. The economic collapse of America’s sub-prime lending fiasco is just around the corner, as is the inauguration of its first Black president. We know how the next few years will go. Milton and company, blissfully unaware of what’s ahead, immerse themselves in a raucous play of their own devising and we can’t help but take vicarious enjoyment in their childish hedonism.
Writing in Similacra and Simulation (1981), Jean Baudrillard called Disneyland “neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real.” Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary.” Actual debility and degeneration abound in Dirty Birds, from the decrepit bare mattress Milton is finally allowed to collapse upon, after spending his first night in Montréal huddled in his building’s stairwell, to the series of increasingly dubious and dangerous jobs he takes on in order to subsist. If you can believe that someone can live for months on rotting pineapple and days-old St-Viateur bagels, then you probably won’t blink at the revelation that a beloved Canadian icon, in addition to being a world-renowned poet and singer, was a murderous gangster. I mean, pourquoi pas? The adults are indeed elsewhere in Dirty Birds, with unlikely coincidence recruited in the service of funhouse-mirror entertainment.
Stylistically Murray steals touches from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and the Mordecai Richler of Barney’s Version, padding the book’s 500+ pages with footnotes and self-drawn sketches of objects mentioned in the telling and which most readers should be able to visualize from the prose itself: a duffel bag, a combine harvester, a pickup truck. Like an art student’s earnest renderings done in a realistic mode, most of these simple line drawings stand counterpoint to the cynicism of the story. Better than what I could do, they are nonetheless tonally flat and lacking in emotional colour. Cleverest are the drawings, found at the beginning of three major sections in the book, of the city of Montréal. In the first, Mount Royal is nonexistent. By the third, the promontory has grown as phallically unignorable as Fuji itself. Meanwhile, by way of expansive footnotes, Murray exhibits a polymathic knowledge of Canadian history and politics. The opposite of the editor who emends Barney Panofsky’s many textual boo-boos, Murray melds fact and deliberate error to humorous effect. Thus, we are treated to such malapropisms as “Sir Edmund Hilroy” and his three-hole-punched mountaineering notebooks. The Maurice Richard Riot, the Quiet Revolution, the October Crisis and the Oka Standoff, to mention but a few events, all get mostly unadulterated enlargement, as though Murray felt the need to add “Grade 10 history textbook” to the various guises put on by his novel.
Still, it must have been liberating to unhook his narrative from the heart-lung machine of plausible reality and let slip the picaresque mutts of Marxian (Groucho not Karl) craziness. As such, nothing has to follow strictly. No one has to die, although someone does and shockingly so for such a bounce-castle rendering of the archetypical hero journey. Taking a page from novelist Thomas Pynchon, and instead of an 800-pound cheese wreaking havoc on picnicking American colonists, Murray incites a modern-day riot stemming from an attempt to set the world record for largest pan of scrambled eggs. For which riot Milton gets blamed, of course. An apt description of Murray’s modus operandi might be CODCO unencumbered by CBC censors, Because News as directed by John Cleese, or an episode of Still Standing, except it’s 3 a.m., Johnny Harris is on a bender and you just know he’s going to pull the fire alarm. All the resentment of Generation Y, while not overtly expressed by Milton the Naïve, seems distilled in him and in the gang of misfits he comes to think of as family: Noddy from St. John’s, he of the ungoverned libido and irrepressible obnoxiousness; Georgette, their polyamorous propriétaire whose voice is stuck at maximum volume; and Sam, a two-dimensional New Zealand place-holder whose sole function seems to be to round out the Stooges to three.
“Such is the first poet,” Victor Hugo wrote (another of Dirty Birds’ epigraphs), “he is young, he is cynical.” It is as though Milton Ontario, with his accidental last name and astounding lack of talent, sets out for far-flung parts east knowing instinctively that the world is neither fair of face nor fair-minded. Therefore, as every would-be poet should know, self-preservation is Rule One. Otherwise, no art can ensue, right? One must construct a battlement against attack, if not against beer bottles thrown by disgruntled patrons of the local brasserie’s open-mic night, then against literary criticism in general. It is significant at one point that “Morgan Murray” becomes Milton’s alter ego. A winking Murray / Ontario distracts his audience from the tedious exercise of having to judge literary worth, achieving mischievous misdirection by refusing to acknowledge
a. that serious art can be achieved in the world as it is and in Canada as it
cannily pretends to be, and
b. that we should strive for anything more than a knock-down, rollicking
good time, consequences be damned.
As Arcade Fire sings (encore la belle épigraphe!), “Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” Don’t hold out for romance, ducky, it’s an illusion, this novel seems to be saying. The object of your heart’s desire will twist said biological pump into a bloody knot and end up choosing someone not only wildly unimagined and inappropriate but the unintended creation of your own misdeeds. Life is a dirty bird that empties its cloaca upon your head when least you expect it. What to do with such a messy nugget of inconvenient wisdom? Nothing except live fully, eyes wide open, and when it’s time, board the bus back home. We are each a work-in-progress, after all, a mass of significant squiggles filling the comic book that we alone can understand completely.
— Richard Cumyn
writes from Edmonton.