Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What the Barn Swallows Know

Bird Brain Genius
Bird Brain Genius by Ken Korczak
As a bookseller (and as a writer) I have watched the changes sweeping the publishing industry with interest.  The rise of ebooks, and of readers like Kindle and Nook, have not been kind to small sellers, but I still find myself excited by the whole knew frontier opening up for online publishing.  No one seems to know exactly where it's going, and that is always thrilling.  And scary.  As the old Chinese proverb/curse says, we live in interesting times.

The upside of the new formats is the rise of independent publishers, many of them aimed at very specific niches -- erotic paranormal romance or zombie apocalypse fiction -- with their own enthusiastic audiences.  Those who don't spend a lot of time online, or haven't really looked at what's out there, might be surprised.  A new publishing industry is sprouting up, full of diverse voices and perspectives.

The down side is that this new zone, as yet, has very little structure and often lacks the experience, quality control, and filtering that big traditional publishers provide.  In many cases, authors are publishing themselves -- something that has always been an option, but which online sales and marketing, and now ebooks, have made incredibly easy.  The problem is that these books may never have benefited from professional editing and the kind of feedback that authors traditionally receive on the way to print. (Or its electronic equivalent.)

A really good example of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this new paradigm is Bird Brain Genius by Ken Korczak.  The book is available on Amazon Kindle, which is where I stumbled across it.  Korczak provides a little back story -- he says that he witnessed the central events when he was working as a newspaper reporter in 1984, and that it was so unbelievable that neither his editor, nor any of the non-fiction publications he sent it to would publish it.  Finally, he decided to expand it into a short novel.  He makes a point of saying that he no longer cares whether anyone believes it or not, "It's just a great story."

And that, at least, is true.

Bird Bran Genius, set in the farm country of Minnesota, concerns two eccentric, white-trash twins, Cadmus and Buford Dziekonski, who own a failing farm and who happen to be mathematical idiot-savants.  The brothers are not good farmers, and their farm, like most of the farms around, is in trouble.  None-the-less, Cadmus becomes obsessed with a pair of barn swallows -- who he names Sabik and Bellatrix -- who have built their nest across from the brothers' front porch.  Watching the birds -- and "contemplating complex temporal-spatial equations based in chaos theory" -- Cadmus begins to create a bizarre intellectual game. 

... he visualized a three-dimensional grid in the large yard that opened east of the farm house. To that he added four-dimensional space-time continuum factors, which only he could grasp effectively. Cadmus' imaginary grid was rectangular, some 75 yards wide by 50 meters high. It was about 50 meters deep. Within the grid, Cadmus further visualized internal cubical sections, and assigned numerical values to each one of them. He also gave them colors to add more variables. After some practice, his powerful imagination could easily and automatically project this mental grid out into the wide space east of the farm house. Sabik and Bellatrix spent much of their time passing through the imaginary grid as they hunted for insects and returned to their nest where the hungry offspring eagerly swallowed the insect victuals. Cadmus soon became absorbed in his game. He noticed that each time Sabik and Bellatrix passed through his mental grid and intersected the individual values assigned to it, they returned to the nest with a specific score. Sometimes Sabik flew through the grid in a way that earned a very high score. At other times, his score was low, at other times middling. Bellatrix did the same.

And so, Tumulus is born.  A game based on keeping score of the bird's passages through the imaginary grid.  When other people from the town find out about it, they flock to the brothers' farm each evening to listen to Cadmus call the game, complete with its own arcane lexicon and dramatic flourishes. 

"Here comes Sabik ... OH! He enters warbling into Purple Sector 9! MOOLTANNA! A good one! He's down, flicks-back, an astro-turn ... WAIT! YIKES! He flickbacks DOUBLE and comes in for a brood roost vigorous! Terrific score, Sabik!! 389 debens!"

The game becomes such a hit that the townspeople begin betting on it, and soon hundreds and hundreds of dollars are changing hands over every round, even though Cadmus and Buford remain innocent of the gambling.  Cadmus is concerned only with calling the games, keeping his statistics, and with his growing unease at what the statistics suggest.  For the scores of the two birds are steadily increasing.  The birds' performance at Tumulus is improving -- as if the birds understand the game, as if they are deliberately competing.  Buford, for his part, totally rejects that possibility, and becomes obsessed with finding the hidden mathematical artifact that must be skewing Cadmus's data.

Around this story is the bleak picture of traditional farm life dying.  Family farms are being foreclosed, and generations of tradition are disappearing.  There is also a sweet, remarkably innocent and romantic love story between the brothers' niece Minerva and the Farm AG agent, whose job it is to foreclose on the Dziekonski farm.

This is a very compelling story, with something of the flavor of Mark Twain's "What Stumped the Blue Jay".  It is in the sketching of the colorful characters, the description of the town, the playing of the sentimental and wistful romantic subplot -- and most of all in describing the intriguing mystery of the game of Tumulus -- that the book's strengths lay.

But, unfortunately, it has flaws too.  What this feels like, more than anything, is the first draft of a good story by a good writer.  I mentioned earlier the lack of structure and feedback that comes from self-publishing, or publishing outside the traditional mold.  And this book definitely shows that lack.  It has all the kinds of mistakes that every writer makes in early drafts -- punctuation, grammar, shifts in tense, slips in point-of-view, awkward phrasing, and elements of the story that haven't quite jelled.  The kinds of things that a few good readers and a good editor help whip into shape.  It's a testament to the strength of the story, and the author's raw talent, that the book is still engaging despite these problems.

As it stands, Bird Brain Genius is fun, interesting little story whose lack of polish will, unfortunately, stop a lot of readers from getting through it.

With a little editing and little development here and there, it could be a very good book.

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