Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Feo Amante review Planet of the Owls

"I awoke that fateful morning to the tail end of a cerebral whiplash."

This is how PLANET OF THE OWLS begins and for a first sentence, you don't get much better than that. For years, visual artist Mike Philbin, has been hard at work honing his writing ability into something that communicates well. Fully half of all writing I've ever read soared or fell thanks to the ability of the author to actually write, and not as Truman Capote would say, "type".

That said, many with the ability to write well fail at the second half of the problem, the ability to write well + about something interesting. And thus the field of writers are cleaved into an ever smaller group.

And while I'm talking about cleaving, the human race in this novel is finding itself efficiently and methodically butchered thanks to an entirely unexpected event: giant birds.

Like zombie stories, "Then the zombies rose..." one day our birds all attained human size or larger and went straight for us. They've always lived among us, far more prevalent than rats and one day they became giants and went to work on us Daphne Du Maurier style. In fact, it was Du Maurier that created (or at least popularized) the bold idea of visiting an unexpected apocalypse on humanity without the slightest bother of explaining how it could possibly happen in the first place. Humanity just has to deal with it.

PLANET OF THE OWLS is told in a two person perspective. First from the voice of Marcus: a young student going nowhere in his life. He does nothing more than exist: wandering from sleep to meal to job to school to home to sleep again and fitting in the drudgery of expelling waste. So when the birds take over he is the least likeliest of heroes and, in fact, never becomes heroic. Even a catastrophic human event, while it can assault his senses, never brings his life into focus. Instead he becomes a victim of the birds, forced to obey their wishes and even when he does fight back, it's only to secure his own momentary comfort. Marcus is of the "Give me Convenience or Give me Death" tribe of people and watches the utter destruction of his fellow humans with a distasteful detachment. Merely a witness of the bird takeover, Marcus makes no more of a dent on avian world rule than he did when humans ruled it.

The other part of this two person perspective starts in China and is told by Su-Ki Chin. Unlike Marcus, Su-Ki has an actual life and is very upset when she witnesses the destruction of her town and family by the birds. Su-Ki's path through this story is more Kafkaesque as she becomes a bird herself and discovers just what led to all of this.

The birds - all birds - are angels. They've always been angels. Always watching us, always monitoring us, always with a bird's eye view of humanity. They neither particularly like or hate us, but in their multidimensional lives where they are both here and on another physical plane, an age-old disagreement has developed into a full bore war. It is this war that is being waged between the various species of birds against one another. Humans are merely in the way.

In PLANET OF THE OWLS, Mike is far more comfortable writing Marcus than he is Su-Ki. Su-Ki is from a different culture, is a different age - 14 - and through Su-Ki's voice, Mike reminds you of this over and over again. On page 20 Su-Ki reminds us that she is, indeed, a 14 year old girl. On page 20 alone Su-Ki reminds us yet again that she is, in fact, 14, TWICE! Still in the same short chapter, Su-Ki tells us on page 23 that she is still 14. I guess this was necessary after Su-Ki gives us a 24 year old medical students' dissertation on neurology and how the human brain translates sensory perception to 'deform' space around a wound. Pretty precocious for a 14 year old girl living in a small village outside of Beijing. Did I mention she was 14?

While Marcus remains earthbound and is both victim and witness to all manner of human degradation (birds eating screaming children, old women being gang-banged by giant birds, etc.), Su-Ki becomes one with the angels/birds and, in a journey through time and space, discovers an obvious secret about the grand creator that the other angels also see but refuse to acknowledge.

PLANET OF THE OWLS is lowbrow and lofty, earthy and spiritual, crass and classy. I've no doubt that in this novel, Mike has found his voice and is writing exactly what he means to say.

For me though, the last 30 or so pages swirled into a verbal Kubrick Space Odyssey: more metaphor and analogy than substance. Then again, when you are writing about spiritual subjects, it might pay to be colorfully vague.

Three Bookwyrms (out of five, ed).

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