My aunt learned to read tarot cards in college as a party trick. Now, every New Years when she comes to visit, she’ll pull out her stack of cards from their purple velvet pouch, shuffle them between her long-nailed fingers, and lay them out in a Celtic Cross spread across the floor in front of us. The penultimate card, the last to be revealed before the outcome, is the card that dictates the inquirer’s Hopes and Fears. Even though the Final Outcome card may allow you to “know” what will occur in the next year, or semester, or month of your life, when it comes down to the actual living, the outcome isn’t the focus. What matters instead are the hopes and fears. Those emotions are the way you will live your day to day life, and those are the emotions that give the outcome meaning.
Sorry to go off on a tarot tangent. And sorry if you think they’re bizarre. They are, it’s true, but I write of tarot cards because they seem to work well with this week’s story, which has reverberations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood,” published in The New Yorker in August (available online here) is the story of a young couple struggling to live in upstate New York in the 70s. The summer has ended, winter is setting on, and meanwhile Keith and Nora are struggling to pay the bills for a cold, leaking shack. Resentment brews (bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and miraculously, they are offered an out: a chance to house-sit in a beautiful mansion in Birnam Wood, which includes its own pool table and a private lake. To convince the elderly couple that they are responsible young adults, Keith and Nora pretend they are married. So begins the domestic experiment, both of them hoping the resentment they felt over the fall will fade, both imagining what it might be like to really own this home, to really belong to each other.
In the past, Boyle has been deemed a maximalist, a writer with melodramatic tendencies and a flare for the bizarre that he sometimes includes to the detriment of his stories. Personally, I love the Boyle that busts with raw humor and dark absurdity. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the archive: the man has written a story called “Thirteen-Hundred Rats,” (it’s ridiculously morbid and strange) and his use of the fantastic in the story “Los Gigantes” still works within a complicated, thought-provoking piece.
But “Birnam Wood” operates on a subtler plain, and the paring back of the bizarre allows us to really focus on what matters in this story: the splintering cracks in Keith and Nora’s relationship.
After they move in to the mansion, things are good for awhile. The tension dissipates, and they try to experience the last days of summer:
“Whenever we could, we went out in the rowboat, and though we never acknowledged it, I suppose we were both thinking the same thing—that we’d better take advantage of it while we could, because each day of the sun might be the last.”
(A metaphor, of course, for the way Keith and Nora cling to the last days of their own relationship.)
The story blows up emotionally (in a good way) after Steve from the bar arrives at the house, and Nora understands what Steve and Keith have talked about in the bar. It’s a terrific, forceful moment in the story, and what follows after is really just Keith coming to terms with all he has lost.
He wanders out across the frozen lake, where he sees into the bedroom of a house, where a man and woman lie side by side, reading before they go to bed, and the narrator sits there, in the icy dark, and watches them until the light goes out.
The scene mirrors an earlier moment in the story, when Keith falls asleep to Nora reading in her separate bed across the room from him:
“…when I switched off my lamp and turned to the wall the last image fading in my brain was of the steady bright nimbus of Nora’s light and her face shining their above the book.”
In both scenes, Keith is closeted in his personal darkness: there is Nora, and there are the people in their beds, two images of celestial domesticity—the kind of happy, secure life that Keith craves. In the first scene, he turns away from the light—just as he will turn away from Nora, and at the end, he cannot help but stare into the house, into the light that he’s lost now, forever.
Our Hopes and Fears are strange forces. They lead us in all sorts of zigzagging directions, and as we follow behind, tugged and pulled from one place to another—a giant mansion, a frozen lake—it’s hard to say what that 10th card will mean to us, when it arrives.
The New Yorker interviewed the author about “Birnam Wood.” You can find the Q & A is here.