“Have you ever heard of mammal watching?” a professor once asked me. “Besides whale watching?” I admitted that I hadn’t. “Sure,” he continued, “we humans like to watch animals of all kinds, but have you ever heard of a self-described snaker? Met an insect-looker at a party? But no one bats an eye if you introduce yourself as a birder.”
I’d never really thought of it, but he seemed to have a point. Historically, humans have paid most attention to animals that are useful. So many people spend their time merely looking for and identifying birds that we have a word for it. With estimates as high as 50 to 60 million Americans, birding is one of the most popular hobbies in our country.
Despite differences in size, body shape, etc., birds are strikingly similar to humans. We notice the plumage and markings of birds because we are highly visual creatures who, as with birds, like patterns and colors. We hear and listen to the calls of birds because we communicate primarily with sounds, just as they do.
The human impulse to see birds as stand-ins for ourselves leads to rich metaphors used to great effect in Sylvia Torti’s 2017 novel Cages. Set among a group of researchers in a laboratory in Salt Lake City, Cages is the story of three scarred people searching for the secrets of communication in the interactions between birds. David, a brilliant neurologist famous for his studies of birdsong, seeks to understand the secrets of sexual selection among birds. Anton, a promising post-doc, is obsessed with the secrets of memory, and hopes its physical structure can be revealed through his experiments with the birds. Rebecca, a young photographer, finds solace in feeding and caring for the birds. Add to this trio a cast of hundreds of birds ranging from starlings, robins, an ancient Inca dove, canaries, and scores of zebra finches.
As these characters study, experiment on, and care for the birds in their lab, their own animal drama unfolds. Just like the birds they study, the researchers’ lives reveal the evolutionary patterns and concerns of humans. To David, a study of birdsong and its role in sexual selection echoes his relationship with his estranged wife, Sarah, and the man who seemingly came between them, his best friend Ed. Anton’s obsession with the physical characteristics of memory seem to be an attempt to understand his absent mother. And to Rebecca, the captivity of the birds reminds her of her own captivity at the hands of a twisted mentor and lover.
Cages is written in a straightforward, almost scientific style. Dialogue is interspersed with strong visual imagery. This pattern is seen when David and Rebecca meet for the first time.
“No, I really want to work in your lab.” She had a small diamond piercing in her nose.
“You said it in class, you know. Birds can tell us about the beginnings of language.”
The diamond glinted in the sun when she turned her head and her blue earrings matched her eyes.
The style is objective, but not sterile. Torti doesn’t flood a scene or character with extraneous details, rather she reveals only the characterizing details, like a distinctive field mark on a bird. Placing visual cues between segments of dialogue resembles the ways in which humans learn about the world and each other, primarily through our eyes and ears.
Cages is a tightly crafted work that reveals remarkable depth. On one level the novel is a human drama, deftly exploring the human condition. Just as the birds in the lab are a mirror to the characters, the characters mirror universal behavior, from mating rituals to the complex challenges of child rearing, and human power dynamics.
Ultimately, however, this novel is about cages. It’s about the physical things that constrain and confine us, like the cages that house the birds in the lab at the heart of the novel. And while the characters are seemingly free to come and go, they are bound by their own physical cages. The open space of the American West is a kind of cage for Anton, a reminder that he cannot return home to Italy until he has had a breakthrough in his research. For David, the lab is a cage, a place he cannot leave because it offers the elusive hope of enlightenment and discovery.
Psychic cages abound in the novel as well. The presence of Rebecca in the lab creates an atmosphere of competition similar to the experiments with the finches. Both David and Anton vie for the attention of Rebecca, perhaps in response to their own failed relationships, and work harder to prove their own theories correct, much as the presence of females increases the singing of the male finches. And once again, Rebecca finds herself trapped.
This competition reminds the reader that humans are possessed of the same needs and drives as birds and other animals, survival and reproduction. However, humans possess a rational mind, capable of questioning and examining the biological imperatives behind our behavior. David and Anton display the same behavior they study in their birds. Perhaps an awareness of this irony fuels their research. Regardless, the presence of a rational mind cannot free any of the characters from the biological imperative to mate and reproduce, in spite of any pain or distress this may cause.
While birding is a popular American pastime, we also enjoy watching members of our own species; birding as a hobby pales in comparison to the time Americans spend watching sports, movies, or reading books. These activities, but especially literature, represent an exploration into ourselves. As Torti illustrates so beautifully, in spite of our capacity for rational thought, we cannot fathom the human psyche. And so we keep looking outward in order to see inside more clearly.
by Sylvia Torti
Schaffner Press (May 1, 2017)
Author Sylvia Torti will read from and discuss her work Cages, Sept. 28, 2017 in Moab at the Grand County Library, 257 E Center St at 7:00 pm. Part of the weeks-long, statewide Utah Humanities Book Festival. Free and open to the public. Books will be for sale and available for the author to personalize.
Sylvia Torti is the author of The Scorpion’s Tail, a Miguel Marmol Award winner. She holds a Ph.D. in biology and is Adjunct Professor in biology, as well as current Dean of the Honors College at the University of Utah. She completed a B.A. degree at Earlham College. Born and raised in Ohio to an Argentine parent, she has traveled and studied extensively and is fluent in English, Spanish and Danish. Cages is her second novel. Cages is the winner of the 2016 Nicholas Shaffner Award. She lives and writes in Salt Lake City.
An excerpt from Cages:
“On weekends in the laboratory the Bengalese finches, starlings, and robins fluttered and called and ate and slept in the private space that the weekend created. Except for those attached to recorders, the birds were not being watched. The animal-care technician, a laconic, pale, too-thin student, came early in the morning. He was supposed to change the newspaper lining the cages, refresh the water, replace seeds and add egg whites, peas and carrots to the dishes, but on Saturdays, when no one was checking his work, he just added some new seeds here and there, filled the water containers if they were low, and left most of the cleaning and feeding until Sunday. No one knew that on Saturdays and Sundays, the birds danced and sang less readily. Nor did anyone suspect that when they slept, they dreamed of singing.”
Nathan Robison is a librarian and writer. He lives in Provo, Utah with his wife, two children, and many animals.
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