Think of It As An Existential Lesson: Deb Olin Unferth and Elizabeth Haidle’s I, Parrot

I, Parrot is the graphic novel written by Deb Olin Unferth and illustrated by Elizabeth Haidle; it’s also the name of the how-to guide contained within. “If you have a parrot, you can be pretty certain this book is for you,” that manual reads. The guide appears throughout the graphic novel, framing the impossibility of the situation the narrator, Daphne, has ended up in. “Anyone who has a parrot is not up to the task. How do you think he likes being locked in a small dark box for his entire life? Do you think you can do anything other than try unsuccessfully to keep the bird from sliding into crippling, suicidal depression while you slowly squash every instinct he has?” The manual notes that birds fly over 100 miles a day. “Think of caring for your parrot as an existential lesson.”

Daphne has taken on this existential lesson. But she doesn’t have just one parrot to save from depression — she has 42. And her job is on the line, which she needs if she ever wants to gain back custody of her son. Daphne doesn’t just have one existential lesson that she’s struggling beneath; she has many.

The birds are a manifestation of the frantic state of Daphne’s life; they also embody her other problems. Unferth and Haidle use the graphic novel format to impeccably weave between the parrot-sitting crisis, Daphne’s exhausting scramble to hold on to her son, and a contemplative state that wanders melancholically through time and memory.

Daphne’s situation is messy. Though full of love and mostly competent, she’s still reeling from the aftermath of her divorce. Daphne’s ex-husband was an angry alcoholic during their marriage, but in his new life he cleans up nice, works all the time, and brings home a lot of money to his new taskmaster wife and dull stepchildren. Daphne, meanwhile, went through a stretch of unemployment and, unlike her ex-husband, doesn’t live in the finest neighborhood with the best school. Daphne has a boyfriend named Laker who both she and her son adore. Despite that, on account of her unstable income and boyfriend, Daphne’s ex-husband is given primary custody of her son.

“I finally found a job,” is the opening line of this story, which captures both the darkness and resilience that follows. “A stupid job, and it didn’t pay well, but I didn’t care because I needed the job badly,” Daphne says. Daphne is the assistant to a self-help guru. She spends her days transcribing platitudes like “You are an essential element of creation,” and “You are worthy of love.” When the guru heads out of town, she offers Daphne extra pay to help look after her birds. Daphne’s deep in debt, behind on rent, and what’s so hard about taking care of a few birds? She settles into her new and largest crisis: “How could I have known that by “birds” [my boss] meant 100,000 dollars’ worth of parrots?” Daphne says. “What kind of idiot was she to go off and leave me with these creatures?”

Pet-sitting for these 42 exotic parrots mirrors the juggling act of Daphne’s life — sometimes she is successful, sometimes the performance is beautiful, and sometimes it’s all too much to handle. Under Daphne’s care, the parrots come down with bird mites. Under Daphne’s care, she nearly poisons them. Under Daphne’s care, she loses them. “42 parrots?” she says early in the book. “I’d recently been deemed not responsible enough to look after one small boy.” Haidle uses a dark and lonely illustration of Daphne’s silhouette, her heart missing from her body. But glowing against the circumstantial bleakness is the love between Daphne and Laker, and the love both of them have for her son. Laker is comfortable and present in a way in a way that Daphne needs — especially with the birds. “The birds were beautiful, with their big, wild personalities,” Daphne says. “And Laker too, his big, wild personality, he seemed to know just what they needed.” Though good with the birds, Laker’s bad at holding down a job — he loses another one while Daphne is caring for the parrots.

I, Parrot is about good people failing — not the sort of failure where they can just quickly dust themselves off and keep on going, but the sort of failure where peace is out of reach. Ease is an illusion. The obstacles are huge. Daphne shuts Laker out of the house. He shouts until some painters come over, concerned. He tells them, “A year ago she told me she was the happiest she’d ever been. Happier than she ever dreamed she would be. And that had to be pretty fucking happy because humans have big dreams.” In one series that beautifully captures the poignant and bumbling love of this story, Laker says to Daphne, “We were making a sort of unit, the three of us. Like a team, or a gang. A small gang.” She says, “A family, you moron.”

Daphne needs her son back. She needs to keep the birds alive and keep her job, and find a guy who can bring in an income or convince the one that she has that he must. But just because she has to do those things doesn’t mean that she can. Daphne worries that only irresponsible people end up in situations like hers, and yet again and again, there she is. Laker bangs on the door. He shouts, “Is this any way to prove to a court that you’re not loud and crowded and poor and stupid and falling apart?” He’s not helping.

Unferth is a master at capturing the hysteric effort of living, and this is her second book that deftly does that this year; she also published the story collection Wait Till You See Me Dance with Graywolf Press, which is full of stunners. Unferth is a savage writer but she’s a very tender one, too. And, in this graphic novel, Haidle gorgeously captures each crisis. Her illustrations gleam with life, displaying the literal disasters of Daphne’s circumstances as well as her emotional interior while recovering from them. I, Parrot is about failing and living in the mess that follows because somehow life goes on.

 

Images from I, Parrot. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2017 Deb Olin Unferth and Elizabeth Haidle.

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