The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In a novel that plays with images of ghosts and metaphors of detection, Alex Decatur, whose absence in death makes her a ghostly presence, figures as the novel’s central mystery. The complexity of Alex’s identity is represented to readers in recollections, in conversations, and most eerily in the tapes Bird watches. The more Bird learns, the less certain she is. Bird had suspected that Alex’s relationship with Burton was tempestuous, but she discovers that Alex and Burton were locked in a sadomasochistic relationship. Plagued by low self-esteem, Burton—the product of a working-class Brooklyn background and never at ease with his prestige as a critic in the elite world of New York’s art scene—was tormented by insecurities. He was possessive and suspicions that Alex was unfaithful.

As a way to forestall any violence, Alex played on Burton’s insecurities with stories she made up or took from her friend Bird’s promiscuous past. Alex exploited Burton’s masochistic need for humiliation. On one tape, Alex explains her strategy indirectly by refering to Scheherazade, the narrator of Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708; also known as The Thousand and One Nights), who forestalled her death each night by telling the cruel sultan enthralling stories. Alex’s mind games apparently succeeded for a time, until Burton came across undated love letters that Bird believes finally pushed him over the edge.

Her discovery of the psychological warfare between Alex and Burton stuns Bird and is integral to her recovery as an artist. Bird, who as a promising artist in the early 1980’s had indulged her passions simply, with an array of stunning men, comes to realize the complicated ambiguity of passion. Bird’s own affair with Charles Marshall, who is very much in love with his wife, confirms this complexity. In a narrative that borrows from Christianity, Bird must experience the “fortunate fall” into awareness (indeed, the narrative plays with imagery of falling drawn from Bird’s haunted dreams of Alex hurtling to her death, forever falling). The demons that Bird must exorcise, then, are not only the profound anger that she harbors for abandoning painting and her regrets over not helping her friend sooner but also her own naïve, unexamined assumptions about love.