No one is sure how it started. Or what started it. One day there was a report of a man in Russia who was riding in a truck with his friend. He asked the friend to pull over and then attacked him, removing his lips with his fingernails. A few days later, another report: five thousand miles east of St. Petersburg. A mother buries her children alive and then kills herself with broken dishes. Then a video; a man trying to attack the videographer with an axe, and eventually succeeding. No one knows what spurs the attacks or why, just that people see something—just, something—and then violently murder those around them before killing themselves. The only way you can be sure to avoid catching it, whatever it is, is to avoid opening your eyes.
No it’s okay. I’ll wait while you shit your pants.
Bird Box deals primarily in the five-years-later aftermath of this visual plague, when the only survivors are those who have learned to live without looking outside, who block their windows and guard their provisions and forage for water wearing t-shirts tied over their eyes. People like Malorie and her children, a boy and a girl who were born into this world, who know only the rules and consequences Malorie has taught them. For years, Malorie has dreamed of one day leaving her house to find safety, but the prospect is understandably daunting. For one, she and the kids would have to wear blindfolds. For miles. Without being able to see whatever, or whomever, might be following them.
Premise-wise, Bird Box cuts right to the chase. We’re in a crazy post-apocalyptic world where you can’t even gawk at the devastation because no one’s stayed alive this long by looking at anything. Malorie’s a survivor but broken down, and her kids have the misfortune (or perhaps advantage) of thinking this is all perfectly normal. Malorie’s fed up. She’s about ready to blow this popsicle stand, and holy shit does that sound like a terrible idea.
Author Josh Malerman wastes no time jumping right into the meat of his story, and at a quick 270 pages, Bird Box is the kind of novel that says “come on….just a few more minutes….like if you stay up until 2 we can probably just bang it out.” And then you do. Because once Malorie is off on her great adventure—oh yes, she goes for it—most of the novel becomes just like those 30 seconds in The Blair Witch Project where the screen goes black and all you hear is heavy breathing and what may or may not be witches doing witch stuff. Except while reading BB you can’t cover your eyes. (Which is ironic, considering.)
As Malorie prepares to embark, she begins reminiscing about her one-time companions at the house, a group of fellow survivors who each embody the myriad ways in which any group of humans would try to contend with unknowable disaster. There’s the militaristic survivalist, risk-averse and worried about rations. There’s a thinker, and a team player, and an optimist. And then there’s Tom, the solid and gregarious group leader, whose presence in the house is a salve for every inevitable tension. Malorie’s memories of the group are some of Bird Box’s best moments—they’re what could make it a great movie—and they’re also welcome reprieves from the nail-baiting “oh shit” suspense of her escape.
Bird Box is a super fast and thrilling read, the kind of book that’s perfect for a flight or a waiting room or when the subway parks itself between stations for 28 minutes because “signal problems.” BB is quick and easy and kind of a bummer but also not because really, wouldn’t humans be wiped out because we couldn’t look away from something? Isn’t that an appropriate karmic comeuppance for us as a species? If there’s any justice at all in this world, at least half of humanity will spontaneously combust after seeing a photo of Kim Kardashian’s ass.
TITLE: Bird Box
AUTHOR: Josh Malerman
PAGES: 270 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Ghastle and Yule
SORTA LIKE: The Dog Stars meets The Ring
FIRST LINE: “Malorie stands in the kitchen, thinking.”