The Decline of Pigeons by Janice Deal
Queen's Ferry Press, 2013
Janice Deal’s newest collection, The Decline of Pigeons, is formulaic—but not in the sense that is so often tossed around when referring to work best left to those who want something to read casually without much thought after finishing. It’s formulaic in that each of her nine stories introduce you to a life that has something taken from it, and shows you, in a gritty and altogether unsympathetic way, just how those lives will never return to harmony.
Deal’s work isn’t stark—at least it’s not as minimalist as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in its post-apocalypse vision, but it is very much so in the sense that these are characters whose existence has become post-apocalyptic. They are trapped in the happenstances of their situations, trying to make sense of it while likewise trying to fit in with the other characters around them. However, Deal is able to fully illustrate these character’s worlds, which makes their experiences so much worse: we as readers are able to see how much they no longer fit—however strangely they struggle to do so.
Take for instance the story “Nature,” where the main character Nikki is trying to cope with the use of a new prosthesis—note the language of isolation and otherness:
He pats her knee, not her arm, and Nikki knows he thinks he’s being sensitive. What she thinks is that he’s afraid of it, the assemblage of metal and plastic that acts like an arm but doesn’t look like one. At night, he has fallen into the pattern of joining her in bed only after she has removed her prosthesis, laid it out on the floor, and turned off the bedside lamp. He will hug her in the dark, face buried in her neck, but his hands never stray; Nikki and Preach haven’t made love since before the accident.
In this case, Nikki goes on to form a brief and passionate relationship with another man who likewise is out of place due to his size, but Nikki is still unable to sustain that relationship as she is only a stranger now, unfit (in her mind) for both her past life and her new one.
It is in this that Deal’s work stands out: her stories are able to be almost common place as far as believability. Whether it’s a wife dealing with the mental illness of her husband or the way a woman tries to endear herself to a boyfriend’s daughter, the plotlines don’t stretch into the unbelievable in order to keep the reader focused—but they don’t need to. The stories keep the reader coming back, hoping that the characters will find some sort of better life—though that often seems to be well out of their grasp.
Take for instance this scene from the titular story, “The Decline of Pigeons.” Here we are presented with a well-worn scene brought into new light by the careful construction of what the main character witnesses:
The bathroom is a pale yellow tile, a long, unclean room with the sinks and mirrors ranged on Gayle’s left, the stalls to her right. At the far end Emme stands amidst the group of girls from the hot dog line, and at first Gayle thinks with a mix of relief and irritation that they’re hanging out, that they’ve been hanging out all this time. For God’s sake, has Emme been sneaking a cigarette?
“I’ve been worried,” Gayle almost says, but then she sees the desperate set to Emme’s face and the way the other girls surround her, circling with such scornful grace that Gayle finds herself mesmerized. No one seems to notice her, hand still on the door. Gayle registers the frisson of fine electric joy holding the circle together and she hears the grunting sound, just barely audible, that Emme makes, her head lowered. The girls sway their hips like much older girls—women, really, in their sheer blouses and short skirts, though they can’t be much older than Emme. One reaches out and brushes Emme’s shoulder, and a second girl bumps into Emme outright, snatching at her hair, while a third girl, the dark-haired one, hisses “Oh, aren’t we pretty today!”
Deal uses clean prose and careful timing to strengthen her stories, making sure to linger when lingering is necessary and moving forward when the time calls for it. This gives her stories an almost melodic sort of flow to them, resulting in the need to start and finish a story in one sitting, at the very least. The stories themselves are written in such a way that the first line weaves through the entirety of the piece, making them not nearly so much a collection of moments but rather an entire thing—a blanket, maybe—that surrounds and envelopes the reader.
If there is a weak point in The Decline of Pigeons, it could be found in the story “Phoenix.” The story follows the life of a woman after a fire has burned her face and body (saying much more would give away the story). What works in this story is what works in the rest of the stories: a careful study of someone who finds herself in a different and often worse situation. What doesn’t work is how suddenly the end of the story comes, and how unexpected. One of the joys of Deal’s work is her ability to make endings that don’t stick to the typical absolute endings of her contemporaries. The ending of “Phoenix,” however, seems too rushed, and when compared to the other stories in the collection, seems relatively under-developed.
This small criticism aside, the rest of the stories work together to leave the reader with weeks of recollection and reflection, illustrating just how poignant and lasting Deal’s stories are. They illuminate the desperation that humanity feels when something is taken that was not offered, and something removed that cannot be completely replaced. She shows the reader a dark, melancholy side of modern-day survival not often explored, or at the very least, not nearly explored so well.