Bird Box, written by Josh Malerman, is a post-apocalyptic horror novel about a universe where people cannot open their eyes when they go out on the streets. The book, however, is not able to take advantage of the symbolic and lovecraftian potential of its premise, failing to present captivating characters and to construct scenes filled with tension.
The protagonist is called Malorie, a woman who finds herself pregnant just on the day that some people is starting to go crazy after seeing a mysterious monster lurking on the streets. With her eyes closed, Malorie leaves desperately for a house that is being advertised as a refuge, finding over other survivors. Years later, however, she finds herself alone again, and having to raise two children, and decides to flee with them to a safer place, traveling blindly by a river.
Much of the narrative focuses on the group the protagonist meets in the refuge, led by the charismatic professor Tom. Working with the dynamic between these individuals – who are basically trapped in a closed chamber – Malerman tries to show how the human mind is susceptible to paranoia in stressful situations and how this invariably leads to reckless actions. However, the author gravely sins at the most important point of the premise: his characters are simply not interesting enough to warrant any discussion. After all, Malerman presents the reader with a range of figures, which at best can be described as unidimensional.
Olympia, for example, is the other pregnant woman in the group and her personality is limited to this characteristic. Jules, in turn, is a guy who likes dogs… because he has one; Cheryl becomes angry easily and that is Cheryl; Tom is the “man” of the group, giving everyone a sense of security by taking responsibility over solving the majority of the problems that arise; Don is the unbearable guy with no redeemable traits; and Felix actually stands out, but for achieving the feat of being even simpler than the previous characters, not possessing a single striking feature: Felix is just a name on the page.
Malorie is an equally flat character, only thinking two things during the whole novel: either she is worried about her children’s health or is lamenting that Tom is not there to help her. Therefore, Malorie can hardly be considered a strong female character, since she creates a strong emotional dependence on the professor, who is the strong male figure of protection.
As Bird Box is full of flat characters confined in a small space, the result could not be other than disastrous: the reader is stuck with the point of view of very repetitive individuals, who never go beyond their initial descriptions.
The horror element of the book is as poorly developed as the characters, with the big events always appearing more foolish than terrifying. At the beginning, for example, the author already falters when it comes to the absurdity of the situations: the rumors that the suicides are being caused by seeing “something strange” have barely begun and instead of there being an initial refusal to such an absurd idea, Malorie already finds a guy putting bandages on his eyes when she visits a pharmacy. Not to mention that, until that moment, the television had not mentioned more than five cases taking place around the world.
The monster itself does not fare much better, because its characteristics are kept secret, since those who look at it end up dying before they can reveal anything. Initially, such strategy works, by sustaining a feeling of suspense about the creature’s identity, as well as working with one of the main foundations of the genre: that the human beings fear what they do not know. There are lovecraftian undertones as well, with the element of a being so monstrous that only seeing it causes madness. However, the mystery stretches forever, making this strategy more irritating than efficient – and the lovecraftian side is never fully explored.
In addition, Malerman does not seem to understand – like Shyamalan in The Happening – that his premise creates visually ridiculous situations, such as people driving with their eyes covered by their hands or going out to explore the neighborhood pretending to be blind; scenes that, depending on the tone, could be in a comedy. The author, however, treats these scenes as naturally tense, never attempting to reconstruct them in the reader’s mind.
Not that he would do much better if he tried, since his writing proves to be incredibly problematic. Malerman’s prose is basically composed of short sentences. This leads to a pacing problem due to the countless pauses caused by the frequency of said sentences. Not to mention that this characteristic also causes negative effects in the buildup of tension: normally, authors insert short and simple sentences suddenly in the narrative to create moments of impact that work precisely because of the contrast with the long descriptions that came before. In Bird Box, as the author always writes in small blocks of short clauses, the instants in which such technique would make sense do not stand out, with the sentences being lost in the middle of so many others.
Now, what Mallerman employs is an artificial strategy of not naming the children the protagonist takes care of, calling them only Boy and Girl. However, that doesn’t work as a commentary on Malorie’s despair: it is not the case that she wants to distance herself from the children with this form of naming, since protecting them appears to be her only goal in life. It would be paradoxical in a nonsensical way. The idea that not giving them common names would help her not feel so much pain in the event of their deaths also does not make much sense, since it does not diminish her affective bond with the children – and she does not appear to want that, since she keeps fighting to protect them.
Some scenes also lack logic: at one point, for example, the protagonist leaves the house with a dog just for it to allow her to get back to her car safely, guiding her along the way. However, she returns without the dog’s help with extreme ease, never noticing the futility of her initial plan.
In short, Bird Box is a deeply flawed horror novel, with a problematic prose and a narrative devoid of meaning, purpose, or any element of interest.
January 05, 2019.
Originally published in Portuguese on October 21, 2016.
May 13th 2014 by Ecco