BASS 2010: Karen Russell, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”

Faust's Homunculus

Faust's Homunculus, 19th century engraving, unknown artist

I’m not sure where the seagulls came from. In retrospect, it seems a little bonkers to have ever thought, “Of course, what this story needs more of are time-traveling seagulls!” Maybe for me the horror of the gulls has something to do with the fizzy sensation that many unseen forces must be altering our lives in the future. And the unsettling fact that things are going to happen to us and to our loved ones without any regard for our beliefs about what’s “meant to be.”

That isn’t from the story itself; it’s from the Contributor’s Notes, but it adds a flavor to the story that I sort of missed on first read. I have trouble seeing humor sometimes, when grimness is presented as humorous. In this story, there’s plenty of grimness, and, yes, humor as well. And seagulls. But you must’ve guessed that.

Nal is a very smart young teen whose life is unraveling bit by bit. His mother was fired from her job. This means Nal can’t go to the summer school program he’d qualified for, one that came with a promise of a college scholarship if all four summers are completed. His cousin Steve, as part of taking a mail order course (the story is set in 1979, pre-internet) from a beauty school, does awful things to his hair for practice, resulting in something like blue tentacles over his forehead. His brother Samson starts dating Vanessa, the girl Nal has adored from afar for a while now. Nal’s having a rough time. And then the seagulls arrive, lots of them, and they turn out to be scavengers who gather things, including a coin dated a couple of years in the future, and… a screw. This serves as a platform to dive into “fate” and how it gets meddled with and leads Nal to take matters more firmly into his own hands and get the girl for himself.

I was disoriented most of the way through the story because the aforementioned barber course was from Nevada, America, which meant to me the story didn’t take place in the US, but I didn’t pick up exactly where it did take place. Names like Nal (unusual but no discernable ethnicity for me), Samson and Steve were no help. Finally Whitsunday Island was mentioned which made me think Australia or New Zealand (it turns out to be the former). But for half the story, I didn’t know if “Nevada, America” was an ironic comment on how far out of touch they were, or if this was set in some strange imaginary world where Nevada seceded (it does dance the magical realism waltz), or something else, and it mattered to me. I should’ve looked up Atherton, which is in the first sentence of the story. But it isn’t like Atherton naturally leads one to think, “Oh, sure, that’s in Australia!” I am disappointed in my inability to shrug off the uncertain setting and proceed; I think I would’ve enjoyed the first read much more had I been able to do so. But I’m also disappointed that the writer didn’t think it important enough to work into the beginning of the story.

There was a lot about this I liked very much. In the opening scene, a seagull swipes Nal’s burger from between its bun while he’s occupied obtaining mustard, and he doesn’t realize it until he bites into the meatless bread. Then he’s at the beach at night writing poetry: “White gobs of gull shit kept falling from the sky, a cascade that Nal found inimical to his writing process.” Yes, I would think so. There are days I wish I could blame my lack of progress on seagull shit. The whole seagull trope – there’s a nest in the hollow of a tree where he finds all manner of things, some from the future – is wonderful, as is the entwined theme of fate and future. The circumstances surrounding the mother losing her job, particularly the media coverage, are well-played and both realistic and outrageous. Vanessa is just strange enough – her parents freaked out when she started to develop breasts, so to get them off her back she binds her chest with an Ace bandage, having learned of such a technique from Shakespeare’s Rosalind.

And then there’s Nal’s internal homunculus:

He felt incapable of spontaneous action: before he could do anything, a tiny homunculus had to generate a flowchart in his brain. If p, then q; If z, then back to a. This homunculus could gnaw a pencil down to a nub, deliberating. All day, he could hear the homunculus clacking in his brain like a secretary from a 1940s movie; Nal shouldn’t! Nal can’t! Nal won’t! and then hitting the bell of the return key. He pictured the homunculus as a tiny, blankly handsome man in a green sweater, very agreeably going about his task of wringing the life from Nal’s life.

I think I have one of those myself.

Overall, though, the story didn’t quite hang together for me. The parts were greater than the sum. But the parts were damn good, anyway.

3 responses to “BASS 2010: Karen Russell, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”

  1. Pingback: Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960 | A Just Recompense

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