In Marie-Helene Bertino’s new novel, Parakeet, an unnamed bride stands before a traditional threshold—marriage to a man—but the plunge she ends up taking is far more subversive. Following the advice of a talking bird, who the Bride recognizes as her dead grandmother, she embarks on a surreal journey that forces her to confront her past and the narrative of herself as the unreliable woman, a narrative imposed upon her by others after a mass shooting left her physically and psychologically scarred. The novel uses surreal elements to convey the inherent strangeness of being a woman in a society that marginalizes women. With masterful craft, Bertino firmly establishes her reputation as part of a new guard of historically disenfranchised writers who have embraced surrealism as a technique for conveying the truths of their experiences.
The ongoing explosion of fabulism in contemporary writing offers an important corrective to the often misogynistic male gaze of the early 20th century surrealists. Writers like André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard fetishized the idea of a passive female muse—naïve, sexually exploitable, and often insane. These authors frequently objectified female characters as the answer to male desire, while demonstrating little interest in giving a woman complex interiority. Women writers and artists who sought to participate in the movement were generally excluded from more serious consideration by their male peers or made to play the muse themselves—for example, Leonora Carrington to Max Ernst. The exclusion of women surrealists is glaring in the fact that they were largely forgotten by history.
This misogynistic history is ironic because surrealism, with its characteristic slippages and rejection of traditional logic, seems “ideally suited” to portray the strangeness inherent to women’s experience—a fact previously noted by Kit Haggard in her illuminating essay “How a queer fabulism came to dominate contemporary women’s writing.” It is therefore fitting that a new guard of women writers are now making the surreal their own.
In Alice Sola Kim’s “Now Wait for this Week,” the protagonist finds herself stuck in a time loop of the same repeated week in which men exposed as abusers dominate the news, but she is mostly ignored when she tries to prove to her friends what is happening by making exact predictions of everything that occurs. It’s a haunting depiction of gaslighting and the experience of women in the #MeToo era. In Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, a woman’s body is twisted in the shape of a knot due to a genetic condition affecting the women in her mother’s line. Her physical state is a source of chronic pain and social rejection and seems representative of the collective traumas women inherit and endure. In Daisy Johnson’s new novel Sisters, the insidiousness of abuse is revealed through a mysterious kind of possession; the all-female main characters seem to lack full claim to themselves. And these examples are just a small sampling from a growing body of recent woman-led surreal fiction.
The Bride, in Parakeet, has no name. To understand why, it is worth considering the scripted historical role of a bride: a woman’s life is transferred, like a deed, from the father to the husband. And although this is no longer strictly the case in the United States, many of the societal fixtures and attitudes surrounding marriage and romance are still tinged by this association.
But Bertino’s Bride is no archetypical white-clad marker of feminine purity. She bears scars from the trauma of her past and, as a result, her experience is marked by mental difference—panic attacks and the anti-logic of anxiety, which has led those close to her to question the validity of her accounts. She is also ethnically ambiguous in appearance, which further others her from her community. Still, it is her trans sister, Simone, who faces the greatest challenges toward being accepted by society.
As the Bride observes: “There can be no accurate representation of my life that doesn’t include an element of oddity that has always been a border between me and the ‘right-minded’ world.” It might well be a manifesto for the new women surrealists.
In 1924 with the publication of his Manifeste du surréalisme André Breton declared the surrealist movement as a rejection of “the reign of logic” and proclaimed the “omnipotence of dreams” as a way to access the truths of the unconscious mind. One distinctive feature of the literature produced by the movement was its creation of liminal, in-between spaces. These settings—whether physical or mental—served to destabilize reality and enable the dreamlike narratives for which the movement is famous. For example, Breton’s titular female in Nadja, who seems to exist more in the fantasies of Breton’s self-styled protagonist, also dubbed “Andre Breton,” than in the real world. (Nadja is denied agency over her own experiences because the quasi-autobiographical novel instead focuses on Breton’s experience of her.)
But whose experiences reflect this in-betweenness more than those of marginalized people? After all, both the borderland and the liminal space are implicit in the root word “margin.” And women in particular have long been relegated to society’s edges by patriarchal systems. In the settings of the new surrealism, there is also a distinct sense of confinement. In Sisters, the three-woman family retreats to the Settle House, where the girls’ father was born; though he is dead, the house remains choked by the nightmarish shadow of his violence. In Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, the “princess-in-a-tower”-tall apartment where Harriet and her daughter Perdita live invokes the vulnerability of a young woman locked away, shielded from the dangers of the world—and from her family’s haunting history of immigration and erasure. In Clare Beams' The Illness Lesson, the barn-converted-to-schoolhouse-for-girls becomes a breeding ground for hysteria, a mostly female-specific mental affliction. The reader understands what the girls’ caregivers fail to, that the illness is not due to any fragility of the girls themselves, but due to how they are treated.
In Parakeet, the Bride stays in a hotel during the week leading up to, and encompassing, her wedding. It’s the perfect in-between space, away from the Bride’s home but not yet the new home she will move into as a wife. And, of course, her life itself hovers upon a major threshold. The uncertainty is consuming, and it makes sense that the hotel attempts to trap the Bride within. The elevator breaks down repeatedly, forcing the Bride to wait, while the eternally cheerful staff work on a repair (though the fix never lasts). Later, when the Bride is trying to escape her own wedding reception in one of the ballrooms, the hotel mysteriously conspires to trap her again: a hallway becomes never-ending and a staircase ascends many more floors than should be possible. “Are we having identical nervous breakdowns,” the Bride asks Simone, who encounters the infinite hallway with her.
How is the reality I’m experiencing also yours, if it’s unacceptable?
In a way, the protagonists of the new surreal are Cassandras, condemned to be doubted when they tell the truth. We understand that society at large would not accept these women’s experiences because they do not fit the expectations of normalcy.
Frustrated by the limits of rationalism, Breton and his contemporaries wanted to be able to represent “truth[s] which [are] not in conformance with accepted practices.” And yet, in their embracing of a phallocentric psychology, they failed to be truly subversive. They were heavily influenced by Freud, whose sexism they arguably inherited. Yet it is also Freud who definitively establishes one of the surrealist movement’s most enduring and versatile aesthetic elements—the unheimlich, or the uncanny.
In his essay “Das Unheimlich,” Freud compiles an extensive list of examples in an attempt to pin the concept down. The German word unheimlich often translates to “unhomelike,” or the opposite of heimlich, “homelike” or “familiar”. However, Freud shows that if we peruse the multiple definitions of heimlich, we come upon one in which heimlich nearly matches one of the definitions of unheimlich, specifically “the notion of something hidden and dangerous.” Thus, Freud concludes “heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite.” Rather than a linguistic quirk, this fundamental slippage is at the heart of what produces the uncanny feeling. It entails a fundamental anxiety about what can be trusted, a fear of the familiar and known morphing to become unknown and threatening.
Freud’s list of things that produce the uncanny feeling includes mannequins, dolls, robots, doppelgängers, look-alikes or “doubles,” particularly whenever a fake is mistaken for the real or vice versa, or whenever the inanimate appears animate, as well as strange recurrences of events, déjà vu, “something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light,” and the sensation of foreignness in oneself.
I’d add to Freud’s list there’s an element of the uncanny that is specific to women. Beyond the strangeness women experience, there’s also a way in which women are innately unsettling from an Anglo-Christian worldview. Eve, after all, was the original uncanny double—formed from Adam’s rib—the temptress who led Adam out of Eden and into a fallen world. Thus, it seems especially fitting for women writers to make the uncanny their own. Furthermore the uncanny, with its tendency to reveal what is hidden, also reflects the fears that lead normalizing society to oppress and erase anything considered foreign from its accepted narratives.
Unsurprisingly, Parakeet abounds with instances of the uncanny, especially doubles. When the Bride goes to purchase a used wedding gown, the seller turns out to be a woman who looks nearly identical; what’s more, this doppelgänger is married to a man with whom the Bride is certain she once had an affair. Shaken, the Bride thinks: “I can’t think of anything that would give me most claim to myself.” Days later, the Bride wakes in her hotel room to discover she inhabits the body of her mother. She becomes privy to her mother’s self-criticisms and sexual fantasies, gaining a new and undesirable closeness of perspective with her mother. The next day she’s relieved to become herself again. Together, these episodes raise one of the novel’s central questions: What is true, and how can a person live in a society where they are constantly mistrusted?
My favorite instance of uncanny doubling in Parakeet comes in the form of a play written by the Bride’s estranged brother Tom, which immortalizes the most horrific day of the Bride’s life and various difficult scenes from her childhood. The play’s success has made Tom an acclaimed playwright, but the Bride has avoided seeing it until now, and for good reason. Different actresses play the Bride at different ages: at eight, at fourteen, at twenty-three, and present day. On stage, the Bride is “newly injured in real time” by the man who shot up the coffee shop where she worked. It seems heartless of Tom to exploit her trauma for an audience, and yet while the Bride watches the play she feels, perhaps against the reader’s expectation, that Tom has restored something to her.
Throughout the play, the Bride’s stage double collects a series of stuffed animals in a particular unchangeable order. Production companies are bewildered by the playwright’s refusal to allow any adjustments regarding the toys, but the Bride sees what they cannot. As a child, her stuffed animals were her safety. She was “hypersensitive,” tormented by her classmates for her differences, and her mother was volatile. Then one day her mother threw all of her animals away in a fit.
It might seem odd for the playwright to make such a big deal out of something seemingly small, but the Bride understands that Tom is honoring the needs of a little girl. As the Bride says, “Tom has returned my animals to me.” In restoring, there is healing. Of course, she doesn’t forgive her brother completely, but the sense that something has been restored encapsulates something much larger, something that is central to the novel’s overall mechanics.
Trauma, after all, is repetitive by nature. Day to day, the Bride still lives with the lingering effects of what happened; in this way, her reality is already one of recurrence. But in presenting the Bride’s life such that she can view it, the play achieves something similar to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, or the idea that a person called the Übermensch, or Superman, could become the master of their own experience by living life while imagining that they would relive the same events eternally over again. The perspective gained by viewing one’s own life in this way would enable an unprecedented agency. Unfortunately, the term Übermensch has since been tainted by its perversion by the Nazis, but the eternal recurrence remains a compelling notion.
Illustrating the eternal recurrence, with each performance of Tom’s play, the Bride’s pain repeats anew, yet it is also proven endurable by the mere fact of her continual survival, i.e. I can survive this because I have survived it already, before. At the same time the things that make enduring possible last forever too. This is what has been restored: perspective. Thus, this play becomes the transformative mirror into which the Bride looks in order to reassert control over her own narrative. And it is Simone, the Bride’s sister, who helps her to reject the narrative imposed on her by society—that she is unreliable—and to stand up for her own truth.
In speaking out, the Bride and Simone become heroes. And they seem like model heroes for the new surrealism.
In her introduction to Tin House’s 2011 Fantastic Women—a book that feel like primer of contemporary surreal writing, Joy Williams argues that what makes the all-female protagonists of the collection’s tales heroic is precisely their acceptance of the strange situations that confront them: “The new heroine is the super adaptable woman, wanderer, perpetrator and acceptor of illogical action.”
This is certainly true of the Bride, who takes it in stride when her grandmother appears in bird form. The Bride accepts the contradictions of her reality and takes action. In doing so, she gains a foothold around which she can construct a reality.
Isn’t this precisely what women have been doing for ages? To confront and live with illogicalities is a part of the daily existence of those disadvantaged and erased by our society’s unjust cultural and power structures. And yet, it remains urgent that women and other marginalized writers continue to find ways to speak their truths. As Audre Lorde said, “What are the words you do not yet have?”
This could be a call for writers of the new surrealism: If the dominant language and structures deny your experience, find new language, new structures.
Bertino, Marie-Helene. Parakeet. Picador, 2021.
Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 2010.
Freud, Sigmund. The “Uncanny” (1919).
Haggard, Kit. “How a Queer Fabulism Came to Dominate Contemporary Women's Writing.” The Outline, 8 Aug. 2018.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches. Ten Speed Press, 2016.
Machado, Carmen Maria. Her Body and Other Parties: Stories. Graywolf, 2017.
Oyeyemi, Helen. Gingerbread: A Novel. Riverhead Books, 2019.
Spillman, Rob. Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House. Tin House Books, 2011.
OTHER WORKS CONSULTED:
Lomas, David. The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.