A few thoughts on “Bluebird” – a short story by Karl Wenclas. The story is thoughtful and lively – repeatedly incisive, piercingly so at points, not least the Teen Pop Beat Magazine interview.
Unfortunately the story has a weak ending that is led up to by threads of weakness throughout. By the end of the story, the counterpoint character Alex Starski and her normative story are realized as little more than, not strikingly distinct from, that of the protagonist Melissa “Bluebird.” What is the music scene really like that Alex hopes to go back to? It’s never detailed, let alone clearly and powerfully counterpointed to Melissa Bluebird’s hollow narcissistic corporate scene. How can it be counterpointed when it’s not detailed? It’s not detailed directly and even very little by implication.
There is essentially no concrete evidence and very little detailed idea that Alex is going back to a music scene much like that of the Dropkick Murphys, as described here (whether in their success or their conscious origins):
The Murphys started in Boston in the mid-90s as a band of young men from working class and union households. Says vocalist and bassist Ken Casey, a founding member: “We were singing about real life stuff at a time when [the] standard 18 year-old punk rock message [was] ‘Fauthority’ and ‘F- the police’.” The Murphys’ “real life” lyrics hit home with fans from backgrounds similar to their own. “People from that walk of life started to gravitate towards the band, and in the early days-back in the mid-’90s-places like Detroit, where labor issues are real life and death stuff, were our biggest footholds.”
In 2001, the AFL-CIO asked the Murphys to perform for its Labor Day festival. Casey humbly recalls his disbelief: “Wow! For a punk band that started out playing at the Rat in Boston to be playing at the AFL-CIO headquarters with President Sweeney introducing you is a pretty wild progression.” As the Murphys’ fan base has grown, so has their ability to influence a broader group of people. Perhaps coincidentally, just as economic insecurity has crept from blue collar into white collar demographics, the Murphys now draw a similarly more diverse crowd. Fans include parents and teens from every class. The band is reaching an age group that labor unions very much need to reach. “A lot of these kids would have never been confronted by [labor struggles], but you have a kid that maybe is from an affluent family, and really it’s not a life or death struggle for him, but … he sees what’s right and wrong and maybe from a political standpoint says, ‘Wow, this is something I want to be involved in.'”
In fact, given virtually no evidence and idea otherwise, no detail, it seems Alex is going back to – what? Her self-destructive antics in revolt against – what? Or are readers to believe now she is going to – what? – go rock hard, drink a couple beers and go to bed to get up the next day and rock hard again? Why? It wasn’t good enough for her before, if that’s what it was, not that readers can know. The scene didn’t sustain her before; why should it sustain her now? Out of spite towards Melissa and the wealthy? she thinks she can will herself to make it this time in the undetailed scene, whatever it is? Well, what is it? Is it the self-torching “18 year-old punk rock message” or is it the punk scene in “places like Detroit, where labor issues are real life and death stuff,” where groups like the Dropkick Murphys found their “biggest footholds.”
What’s the actual counterpoint to the corporate Bluebirds? The story assumes too much and provides too little in not detailing it – and not only because diverse readers can’t be expected to know the punk scenes in Detroit, let alone which scenes within the scenes Alex might actually have been involved with.
It’s this missing vital content that is needed to increase the social and political, cultural and moral power of the story – all the normative stuff. Also, it’s this missing vital content artfully interwoven that would greatly increase the aesthetic power of the story, beyond its current solid core.
Enhance these normative and aesthetic elements, and the tale of the Bluebird could fly off the charts. As story or novel, play and film. Why not power it up more or less throughout, by counterpointing the corporate Bluebird with plenty of detail (both imagined and documented, both idea and evidence)? Why not ultimately tie it in all the way back to the content and themes of the first paragraph? Why not challenge the status quo all the time with counterpointed detail that can provide a degree of vision and power the story currently voids? Why simply let the status quo story elements drone on through our imaginations, even if satirically undercut? Why not also provide actual idea and image counterpoints, thus burying the status quo on top of lancing it?
To do otherwise, I think, inadvertently guts the story, assumes too much, and achieves – aesthetically and otherwise – too little. And isn’t that the problem with Alex Starski throughout and by the end of the story – as character, as human, as artistic creature and artistic creation? (All this is Melissa aside, who, in the moment of the story, remains beyond redemption, or at least beyond much of sustaining meaning.) By the end, Alex’s problem remains the story’s problem; the story’s problem remains Alex – that she seems almost as adrift and trapped as Melissa – even as the story, by lauding where Alex is supposedly returning to or nebulously going, basically romanticizes this state of being adrift in a trap she finally can only seem to wonder at, rather blankly. Too bad, because it’s not a trap so difficult to spring (to elude) in this story, given how achieved the story already is. It’s bumping up against a crucial door, where Alex has been deprived of a bunch of working keys that may be found, or made, or at least imagined, in detail, right in her own neighborhood and world, mind and music.
The bluebird was damp and numb. It sipped from a hastily scrounged bottle of cheap whiskey. It was back at its street origins, wondering in its ignorance about the nature of art, career, success on the wing. As its mind wandered into more painful territory it wondered about personality and about love but not about other birds. Rain washed through its eyes. It looked at itself. It gave a lingering final chord to its thoughts by glancing once more at the lighted marquee down the street which held its own image: BLUEBIRD. It blinked, as its imagination and non-hawkeyes hit the wall. It fluttered to a stone bench. The bluebird was damp and numb….
No. There’s no reason this creature of wing can’t find the art to do better than that. The winged creature deserves better; and so do its readers; the author knows better; and so might the readers. And in any case, the challenge all around – for readers, artist, art, intelligence, culture, and so on – is worth it.