Monday, August 29, 2005


10-pages-in book review: The Bird Factory

I read a review of David Layton's The Bird Factory in the newspaper, and managed to get a copy from the library in fairly short order. When I read the review, I knew it was something I'd have to read because it touches on a couple of themes dear to my heart.

First, the author is a 30-something Canadian, and Canadian-ness is often enough of a selection criteria to just get me to open a book. Second, he happens to be the son of one of the grand old men of Canadian poetry, Irving Layton. Third, the review was generally positive. Fourth, and foremost, was the subject matter: The Bird Factory is about a 30-something guy whose life starts to spin out of control when he and his wife have trouble procreating, and he finds out he has lazy sperm. Among other things, the novel is about going through in vitro fertilization (IVF) from a guy's perspective.

For the same reasons I wanted to read this book, I wanted to dislike it. See, we Canadians have this deeply ingrained quirk that makes us want to see successful Canadians knocked down a notch or two. I had hoped I'd risen above this nasty little peccadillo, but I fear not.

By way of illustrating the point, let me retell this story of a friend's first visit to the east coast. He was watching the men fish for lobsters. They'd haul up a trap and open it and shake the lobsters into a wide, shallow bin then they'd drop the open trap back into the water. (Pardon me if I gloss over the details. The lobster fishery is not something I've studied in any amount of detail.) The point is, the man watches the lobster fishermen (fisherpeople, I guess) for quite a while before his curiousity overcomes him.

"Excuse me," he says, "but do you mind if I ask a question? That bin is so shallow, the lobsters should have no trouble climbing over the side. How are you keeping them from escaping?"

To which the lobster fisher person replies, (insert salty east coast accent here) "Well, me boy, these 'ere are Canadian lobsters. Any one of them gets too close to the top of the pile, 'tothers will just drag 'im back down agin."

More succinctly, as my dad recently put it, a Canadian is someone who will knock you down to size, then apologize for it.

So for reasons that are ingrained in me culturally, there's an odd little piece of me that wanted this to be a bad book. Thinks he's clever, does he? Writing about infertility? Thinks he has some insight, maybe some talent?

Turns out, he does have both insight and talent. It really is a good book. Layton's wry humour, clean writing and genuine charm have me hooked. I'm a little more than 10 pages in - more like 60 - but just thinking about it as I'm typing makes me want to curl up and read another chapter to find out what happens next.

According to the review I read, Layton has gone through IVF himself, so he knows whereof he speaks. I found myself at various key points in the narrative thinking, "No, that's not how it was for us," then realized that he's not narrating this from the woman's perpective, he's narrating it from the man's - something to which I can't really speak. I know what Beloved said and did, but I can't claim to know how he felt. So when I was getting a little agitated with the protagonist's laissez-faire attitude, it served as an interesting reminder that maybe my husband had a different way of experiencing that chapter in our lives.

I love a book filled with quirky characters, and this one has them to spare. Luke Gray, the protagonist, has a little lost boy quality that I would have found irrestible were I a literary character or he a real person. His wife Julia is a classic high-achiever who attacks the problem of infertility with a a single-minded focus that reminds me almost painfully of myself. Luke's father, an erstwhile film-maker, builds a river in their suburban basement when Luke is a boy. Luke has made a business of constructing large decorative bird mobiles, and he seems to adopt employees like stray cats - odds and sods of societal rejects who seem even less engaged in their lives than Luke is in his.

You don't have to have any experience in or even perspective on infertility to enjoy this book. It's an insightful, darkly funny and poignant examination of one guy's life and the forces that drag him through it.


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