Review: Born Weird, by Andrew Kaufman

born-weird>>Published: December 2012

>>Finally got around to it: April 2013

“All of you got one, you know. All five of you got one.”

“You gave Kent the power to be an asshole?”

“Yes. In a way I did. Kent is slightly stronger than anyone he fights. Physical fights, I mean. He came out so small and I knew he’d need to defend himself, somehow. That he’s emotionally stunted is not my fault.”

“He’s not stunted. He’s just angry all the time.”

“Lucy is never lost. Abba never loses hope. Richard keeps himself safe. I never thought they’d all become curses. They were supposed to be blessings. I didn’t know that they’d end up ruining your lives.”

“Our lives are ruined?”

“And it’s not just you kids. It’s the family. The family name! I will not go to the grave responsible for taking down the good name of the Weirds.”

“Oh yes. Well, then, that makes more sense.”

“That’s why you’re here, Angie. You must go and find them. Round all of them up and bring them here. All five of you must be in this room at 7:39 p.m. on April 20 precisely. At the moment of my death I will lift the curses.”

***

The Weird siblings, from oldest to youngest: Richard, Lucy, Abba, Angie, and Kent. Each of them has been gifted a “blursing”—a blessing and a curse rolled into one: Richard has an almost psychic capacity for self-preservation, which keeps his heart at an arm’s length of genuine love; Lucy is gifted with an unnaturally well-tuned sense of direction that makes it impossible for her to ever fully abandon the life she has (which spawns a tragic need for her to spread her legs at far too many opportunities); Abba never loses hope, no matter how misguided it may be; Angie has a heart too big for its own good, which allows her to forgive her siblings’ many (and varied) transgressions; and Kent, the runt of the litter, is blursed with a fucking short fucking fuse that gets him into more than a few tight situations along the way.

Life for the Weird siblings is, to put it mildly, a little less than straightforward. Their father Besnard died eight and a half years prior to the start of the tale. Their mother Nicola, following their father’s death, checked out from reality and is confined now to a nursing home where she operates a makeshift hair salon for the visiting children she no longer recognizes. And last but not least is the Shark—Grandma Weird, who mistakenly blursed the five siblings early in life, and now, on her deathbed, seeks to undo the very real (or convincingly imagined) damage she’s done.

Each blursing has, over time, become a prison of sorts for the affected sibling. Following Besnard’s death, the Weird siblings went along their separate paths, each one struggling to make sense of life in their own special, messed up sort of way. Our story begins as Grandma Weird summons the very pregnant Angie to her side with a mission: to reunite the wayward Weirds in time for Grandma to break their blursings upon her untimely (though very much expected) death. What follows is a quick gathering of bickering souls in time for a chaotic road trip from one end of Canada to the other.

Like Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes, Born Weird is magical realism-lite: a story that treads the line between literary and genre work, with a healthy smattering of surrealism for flavour, for oomph.

The Theory of Snakes and Sharks at the spine of Born Weird is a sort of CliffsNotes for family fuck-uppery: “The sharks are the people who are naturally evil. They just cruise around the world doing evil things. But that’s what they do. It’s in their nature. Snakes are different. They don’t actually commit evil themselves, they convince other people to do it.” Between Besnard’s spectacular lack of parenting and Grandma’s unwanted life lessons-style magical intervention, the Weird siblings’ very natures have been, against their better desires, dictated by what was lost and never truly known, and what was given—and possibly needed—but never wanted in the first place.

Kaufman’s strengths are his abilities to play with rhythm and dialogue. Each of the five Weird siblings feels authentic and accessible—and so incredibly flawed. More than that, when they come together their voices sync up in very natural ways. The casual back biting and sibling rivalry-style language paints an effective scene with plenty of implied history between them. While the dialogue is never laugh-out-loud funny, it has a sarcastic charm to it, a playfulness that gnaws at the bone without ever breaking skin. Like All My Friends Are Superheroes, which employed a similar tone and playfulness of voice, the metaphors surrounding each siblings’ blurse are never rich enough to mine for extended depths, and neither are they shallow enough to merely coat the surface.

The qualities of Kaufman’s writing do most of Born Weird’s heavy lifting. The family values-style narrative offers little more than your typical redemption-and-forgiveness tale wherein a neglectful parent is taught the error of their ways and the siblings all learn what matters most. And as the narrative stumbles in its final few steps across the finish line with a pat (but mostly earned) conclusion, a little of its bite—bite that gave the novel its life and strongest sense of identity—is lost.

In spite of that, Born Weird is a delightful, highly engaging read, and a successful marriage of magical realism with more conventional literary tendencies. Kaufman has a quick wit; the sharpness of his dialogue and how well it informs each of his characters gives Born Weird its unique comic timing and sensibility. This book is a lot of fun.

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