Timely literary fiction is uncommon. Stories deemed “topical” by major media outlets flicker at us as frantically as a strobe light. Literary fiction, in contrast, offers a slow burn. Lag times in the publishing industry exacerbate the situation. By the time a story ripped from the headlines reaches the reader, it can exude a whiff of old news, precisely because it’s been ripped from the headlines.
But there are exceptions, and Curtis Smith’s The Magpie’s Return (Running Wild Press, 380 pages) counts among them. Reading this novel can feel uncanny, especially the opening section, with its descriptions of “The Great Shut-In” where people are obliged to stay home or, if they venture out, wear masks. (Here, due to a nuclear conflict on the other side of the globe.) The story centers on Kayla, a precocious adolescent who excels at math. She observes:
Even beneath my mask, I hold my breath. The fear of poison all around, and even if the count is low, no one knows when an inhaled microbe could implant itself, a time bomb’s first tick, and perhaps the cells are already dividing beneath my skin.
Smith explores the fear and uncertainty (am I safe? am I paranoid? who do I trust?) that accompany such situations. Physical concerns aside, the psychological toll is considerable, and made worse by the fact that political necessity can also serve opportunism for those eager to grasp the levers of power. A demagogic politician named McNally, who advocates a form of Christian nationalism, is ascendant, and his supporters include Kayla’s new neighbor, Slater, a character who will loom large in this story.
Kayla’s family is shaken by these changes. Her father is a professor; her mother, a poet. In many respects they embody a species of well-intentioned liberal whose worldview is poorly equipped to deal with new, angry realities. What might’ve earlier made their attitudes to life seem more sophisticated or cosmopolitan actually enfeebles them now. Kayla loves her parents but she can dissect their pieties with an adolescent’s unsparing frankness. When her father counsels patience and empathy, Kayla shoots back.
“All of us have been hurt,” he said the other night over dinner. “All deal with it in their own way.”
“If all of us have been hurt, then there are some who’ve done their fair share of the hurting.” I stuck a forkful of chicken into my mouth. “It’s only logical. Law of averages and everything. I’d be glad to show you some statistical models.”
Mathematics is central to how Kayla experiences the world. For her peers, it’s a difficult subject; for Kayla, it’s her comfort zone, not just for the beautiful shapes of solved equations but for offering her a means to navigate through life. For instance, she enjoys field hockey. But she is probably the only one on the team who entertains thoughts like this:
I estimate the ball’s circumference and velocity and its travels across an X-axis, its distance impacted by variables of cleat ruts and the gouges cut into the rubber by the groundskeeper’s mower. The numbers’ dance leads to new numbers, other variables…
Or, in an arresting scene early in the novel, she gets into a fight with a girl named Missy. She is goaded by others, but Kayla’s reaction to external provocation follows an internal imprint resembling the grids of her calculus class.
The grid appears and Missy melts into a jumble of squares and rectangles, her jaw stretched into a snarling, funhouse distortion. A target that expands until it accumulates its own gravity. Her mouth opens, a maw of teeth and gum and a waggling serpent’s tongue, her threats cut short by the fist that swings so fast it hardly seems to belong to me.
The Magpie’s Return is full of such moments. Though mathematical logic can be implacable, it can also surprise. This novel features numerous twists and turns. Early on, I thought I was reading a “post-nuclear” novel, a particular kind of dystopia to which I brought various assumptions. But the story develops otherwise; Smith does not allow it to become predictable. Violent ruptures—in the family, in the community, in institutions—occur frequently, and are part of the novel’s design.
The narration shifts from first person to second person to third person, underlining the mutability of perspectives. Throughout the novel, including a period of harrowing incarceration, Kayla aches to “balance the equation.” This desire expresses not only a need to make sense of events: it is also a hunger for justice. An imposed Big Idea (here, McNally’s “Holy America”) does violence to the shared experiences of her past. Here Kayla recalls her mother:
When I was four, you told me about Lao Tzu and the journey of a thousand miles, and you laughed when I doubted you, not the concept but the unit of measure, and we researched the li, the Chinese length approximately a third of the English mile, and our private joke that a journey of three hundred thirty-three and a third miles begins with a single step, and ahead of me waits twenty-four li, and who would smile at that but you, mom, and now that’s gone too, the li and our thousand other secrets, all of them stolen.
Reading this novel, I was reminded of a phrase from George Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946), an essay written fairly late in Orwell’s life, after he’d become the political artist he is remembered as today. He’d served unhappily in the Imperial Police in Burma, volunteered for the POUM anarchists in civil war Spain, been shot through the neck by a fascist bullet, narrowly escaped assassination by Stalinist agents. It was a life, to put it mildly, not short on incident. But in this essay, Orwell returns to his childhood, to memories of when he was eight years old, when he had a crucial realization: “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” It was this early insight, experienced by a child, which brought about the writer.
If The Magpie’s Return feels timely, it is not a matter of punditry or ripped headlines, but rather of Smith’s command of language and his power of facing unpleasant facts. Smith directs his gaze both without and within, documenting Kayla’s interiority in a manner that journalism could never reach. In the process, he reaffirms the vitality and importance of fiction. Smith’s telling offers no easy consolations, but it is a cry from the heart that gives the reader the satisfaction of serious art. Ambitious, inventive and uncompromising, this novel reminds us of the fragility of so much of what we take for granted.
–Charles Holdefer, author of Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots, 2019