Chouette: A Review by T.S. McNeil

Things are not always as they seem. What appears normal, even ordinary, can turn out to be a dream. Prose fiction is particularly tricky, particularly in terms of the narrative. The oddest things put in the most casual ways. Chouette by American author Claire Oshetsky is the strangest sort of weird. The one that comes out of nowhere, because it is just so darn normal on the surface. 

There are some clues, like in the epigraph, cleverly placed right after the dedication page where it might easily be missed. The text in question is from David Lynch’s Eraserhead: “Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!” Not the sort of thing one usually expects to read in a HarperCollins associated book, but there it is. 

The plot, as far as can be told through all the ‘what the heck?’ is about a woman, literally named ‘Tiny’ who gives birth to a baby that is both a baby and an owl. Following the literalist naming tradition, it is only ever referred to as ‘owl-baby.’ 

Making matters even weirder are Oshetsky’s stylistic choices, including an extremely conversational ‘must be Tuesday’ tone, that sounds like she is addressing her owl-baby itself. Actually, stating in the very first page: “As for you, owl-baby, let’s lay out the facts.” But isn’t only there, page 74 starting with: “We’re home owl-baby. It’s where we belong.” 

The weird thing is, this isn’t even as weird as the story gets, tiny seeming to take everything in stride. Her conversational, ‘we’ll, how do you like that?’ tone persist at the first line of each section. Separated by a lovely illustration of a tree branch with leaves. The sort that owls like to hang out on while they hoot. 

Part of Tiny’s ability to take things as they are, which borders on Optimistic Nihilism, stems from what could be called a flat character-arc. One of the rarest types of character arc, especially compared to the ever-popular Hero’s Journey and even Redemption arc, especially when it comes to anti-heroes. 

Tiny is neither a hero nor an anti-hero in the traditional sense. She is an observer. A protagonist in the strictest sense, she has luck of the sort not seen since Franz Kafka, at least in terms of the ways in which the inexplicable invades the real. 

An even odder comparison, if also more accurate, is the ‘are you sure that happened’ sort of first-person reportage books. Not those penned by Hunter S. Thomson in the heyday of hedonism, the Gonzo Godfather the catalyst of the weird, but those by Jon Ronson. A less famous, but more measured, Welsh journalist who is so sensible, it is almost weird: strange and dangerous situations happening to him in the course of his job, rather than seeking them out. 

This becomes abundantly clear fairly early, on page 137, nakedly stating: “After the Day of Tears and Blood comes and goes, you mother keeps looking after you the same as ever, and she keeps picking you up when you scream, and changing your diaper and scrubbing your poo from the walls and playing music with you in the afternoons.”

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