The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing by Raymond St. Elmo

SPFBO Status: Semifinalist

Medium: Kindle

Overview (No Spoilers):

To be honest, this is the first book I picked up in the SPFBO… but it is the last review that I am writing (sorry to Raymond St. Elmo for making you wait!). I have had a difficult time trying to write a summary that can capture this wonderful oddity of a novel with many twists and turns, literary (and scientific!) references, and stories within a story. I don’t know that I have ever enjoyed a novel so much that left me at the same time very confused, and wondering if I had actually enjoyed it at all? This book is smartly written, witty, and I would say quite unique. It may be summarized best by Calvino’s character in terms of the uncertainty principle: “you can have the random tracks of birds, or the true meaning of the tracks of birds. But by the nature of the translation, you can never have both.”

The split of perception and reality is definitely in the forefront of The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing. In this novel, we follow the ridiculous adventure of Clarence St. Claire, a “Very Serious Person” and slightly awkward programmer. Before his current “Very Serious Job” as a programmer, Clarence was hired by the NSA to decipher the meaning of some seemingly nonsensical bird tracks, but was fired when he finally gets somewhere with it (but also less with it, as he shows signs of a mental break). Later on, the manuscript that he was translating resurfaces and consumes his life. St. Claire becomes obsessed with re-deciphering the manuscript which gives rise to ever-heightening experiences of dabbling with hackers on the dark web, an adorable flirtation story with a coworker, summoning a ‘spirit door’ where we are introduced to many, many dead authors, and a constant question of whether or not all of this is just going on in St. Claire’s head. My only complaint is that sometimes the stories within a story, or the sheer multitude of storylines, was a lot to keep straight, and at times really made the story drag on. Perhaps the best comparison I can make would be the multilayered realities from the movie Inception. Toward the end of The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing, the reader is left pondering the level of subconscious Clarence is currently narrating from, that proportionally left one questioning his overall sanity. This witty novel has many elements that readers will enjoy- humor, mystery, snark, excitement, and tons of literary references (many of which I am sure that I missed) and requires a close reading, and sometimes re-reading

Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):

  • The first two or so chapters were hard to get through. I was annoyed at the early writing style and early story Clarence- but maybe I just wasn’t into the swing of the novel yet, and it certainly improved.
  • The writing started to win me over with the quote: “College? I studied languages, without really learning to speak them. I studied girls, without really learning to speak to them. I kept to myself, a haunter of libraries and bookstores. By myself, but not alone. I lived with books.” 
  • I think Clarence might just be the weirdest coworker ever. At one point, he stands on the chair in his cubicle to stare at the person in the cubicle next to him. 
  • I really enjoyed the coy love interest component; it wasn’t central, but it was cute. Her character was actually one of my favorites.
  • Officer Kafka was awesome.
  • There was a scene, 42% of the way through where Clarence starts talking to a heron under a streetlamp and he magically starts smoking a cigar out of thin air. That was when I was absolutely convinced that he was stark raving mad. 
  • I couldn’t help but think that the Translation Office was straight out of a Dr. Seuss-type novel- what on Earth must that place have been like?
  • How was Alba the cleaning lady not more central to the story? She herself ‘read’ the tracks?! I feel like this was nearly a fatal flaw in the amount of effort Clarence spent in trying to analyze the bird tracks- clearly he was not the first person to try it. Then again, maybe it was a bad trip from the drugs in the water cooler…
  • Towards the end of the story, I essentially skimmed the long responses from Bob The Answer Man as they were very repetitive.
  • The author references in this book were many, and it sent me looking up the authors and their novels that I need to add to my TBR pile. However, at times the ongoing individual story lines, and there were many, made the middle of the book a little hard to get through as someone who is not familiar with these inside stories.
  • Was any of this real? Did he have a psychotic break? I am still not entirely sure… I really do think I need to read this again.

Vocabulary Builder:

Curio: something (such as a decorative object) considered novel, rare, or bizarre

Maunder: to wander slowly and idly

Opprobrium: something that brings disgrace

Propitiate: to gain or regain the favor or goodwill of

Serape: a colorful woolen shawl worn over the shoulders especially by Mexican men

Syllogism: a deductive scheme of a formal argument consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion

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