(New York, NY: Schaffner Press, 2017)
Most people have felt it at one point or another: that dull ache in the center of your chest when someone ignores you. The slow wrenching in your stomach when you’re not being understood. A disconnected pain, bouncing around your organs like shrapnel. Contrary to the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me,” when humans are socially ostracized or misunderstood, we feel the effects like a physical wound.
Pain and isolation both play an important role in Cages by Sylvia Torti. In a remote laboratory in the mountains near Salt Lake City, two neurologists, David and Anton, study songbirds in an attempt to unlock the secrets of language and memory. When their new assistant Rebecca starts working at the laboratory, the three recluses are plunged into exactly the kind of internal turmoil that the research is seeking to unravel.
After reading the back of the book, I went into the story expecting a love triangle. However, I was pleasantly surprised: rather than pitting the two men against each other to fight over Rebecca like a chew toy, the story hardly focused on romance at all. While Rebecca and Anton quickly fall into a romantic relationship, which leaves David mildly jealous, David recognizes the irrationality of his own emotions and instead focuses on moving past his painful memories, driving him deeper into his work by the day. The focus is always on each character’s internal landscape rather than their interactions with each other. This leads to a rather detached relationship dynamic; but that detachment is wholly the point.
David, Anton, and Rebecca are all nursing their own wounds when they are thrown together. The laboratory becomes a staging ground for their attempts to move on: Anton tries to discover the root of how memory is formed by inducing muteness in songbirds, while plagued by the memories of his silent and absent mother. David is studying language while trying to unravel how miscommunication led to his marriage falling apart. And Rebecca is recovering from an abusive relationship that nearly consumed her, and feels the birds in the laboratory calling to her as if they are the key to moving on.
Each character is struggling to break free from their own histories and wounds; and so the setting of a laboratory full of bird cages becomes an important metaphor. For the birds, freedom is as simple as opening a wire door, but they will never be able to raise the latch. What stands between the main characters and their own release from suffering appears equally insubstantial – they need only to let their pain go – and yet that freedom is almost impossible to attain. Like the birds they use as test subjects, the characters aren’t even fully aware of the bars that separate them from the world; they only feel the sense of confinement, but cannot see how they’ve been trapped.
But the birds in the laboratory do not solely serve as a metaphorical touchstone for the human characters. Cages turns an eye on the morality of animal experimentation without coming off as preachy or overly sentimental. Often, the surgeries that Anton and David perform on their test subjects are described in clinical detail, no less gruesome for the detachment the researchers feel towards the pain and death they inflict on their subjects.
When a bird dies after an intricate surgery, Rebecca suggests that maybe it chose to die – that it didn’t want to be studied. David accuses her of anthropomorphizing, but the irony is that the three humans are living reflections of the animals they’re trying to study. They dig into the birds to try and find out what makes them tick in a parallel journey of their own search for meaning within themselves. In a conversation with a friend, David outlines his own outlook:
“All I’m saying is that signal and receiver are only part of communication, and only a small part at that. It’s more about collaboration […] And context and perception. A signal, or the perception of a signal out of context is meaningless at best, confusing and problematic at worst.”
But ultimately, that journey cannot be completed alone. In their research, David and Anton discover that hearing is just as important to songbirds as the act of singing is. The three characters spend so much time trying to sort out their own issues, but they never manage to actually connect with each other. Like a bird whose song begins to stutter and falter when it cannot hear its own voice, the characters are trapped inside their own respective silences, unable to express themselves. “We have to hear ourselves,” Rebecca says. “Otherwise we lose our ability to talk.”
I enjoyed how the scientific elements of this novel were so skillfully woven into the thematic journey. As the researchers experiment with song and silence, they are driven to think about how those same elements impact their own lives. At one point, Anton attempts to mute a bird by implanting a pin in its vocal organs to prevent them from vibrating; when he comes back the next morning, he discovers the bird has died. The pin was not secured properly, and it slid into the muted bird’s heart.
In the end, the story doesn’t offer up a neat answer to the questions its protagonists face. In many ways the questions themselves are the important thing: on how we’re trapped by our own inability to communicate, and the pain it inevitably causes. At its heart, Cages takes a contemplative look at the ways in which we try to connect with each other. It’s an introspective story, as quiet and melancholic as a bird in a cage that cannot, or will not, sing.
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, currently living in Washington D.C.