A Personal Matter tells the story of a conflict between duty and desire. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, who is known to the reader only by his childhood name, Bird, is waiting for his wife to produce their first child. Bird is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of fatherhood. He fears that it will interfere with the realization of his dream, to travel throughout Africa in order to test his courage and, more practically, to enable him to gather material for a book.
Unfortunately, when the baby is born, it is defective. Diagnosing a brain hernia, the doctors predict that if it does not die, it will be a vegetable. At the suggestion of his wife’s mother, Bird does not tell his wife the extent of the baby’s condition.
Bird’s response to his problem is typical. Just as he dropped out of graduate school for an extended period of drunkenness immediately after he was married, so he again runs away from responsibility when he must deal with his son’s defect. After his sympathetic father-in-law gives him a bottle of whiskey, Bird takes refuge with a former girlfriend, Himiko, with whom he spends a drunken night. Appropriately, Himiko has dropped out of society, spending her time in a messy apartment, where she entertains lovers and broods over her husband’s suicide, and from which she emerges at night for wild rides in her sports car.
Reporting for work after his night with Himiko, Bird vomits in front of his class and leaves, certain that he will be fired. At the hospital, he learns that the baby, whose death he desires, is stronger. Again he returns to Himiko, who now insists that Bird has no more responsibility for his child’s malformation than she did for her husband’s suicide. Captivated by Bird’s dream and encouraged by her lesbian friend and by her father-in-law, Himiko urges Bird to remove the baby from the hospital, see that he dies, and then run away with her to Africa.
Bird agrees with Himiko’s plan and picks up the baby, who now seems to be his enemy, the person who has been born to thwart Bird’s hopes. As Bird and Himiko drive through the rain with the screaming child, however, Bird cannot believe that he will ever be happy, even in Africa, knowing that he has betrayed his own child. Himiko’s reminder of Bird’s earlier betrayal of a friend, Kikuhiko, disturbs Bird, and when he names his son Kikuhiko, the present deed fuses with the past. After Bird and Himiko leave the baby with an unscrupulous doctor, ironically they encounter their old friend Kikuhiko, who attributes his present unsavory life in part to Bird’s treatment of him. At this point, Bird realizes that the treasure which he believed he was protecting from his baby-enemy was only an illusion, that all of his life he has been fleeing from responsibility in friendship, in marriage, and in fatherhood. Despite the arguments of his mistress Himiko and his friend Kikuhiko, Bird leaves to reclaim his child.
In the epilogue, Bird and his wife are leaving the hospital with their son, whose brain hernia was rediagnosed as a less serious tumor, for which an operation may have left the baby normal. In any case, Bird has accepted his responsibilities. While Himiko has gone to Africa, taking Bird’s dream for her own, Bird is resigned to being a guide for tourists from other parts of the world rather than seeing the world for himself. He has changed from a child who deserved to be called by a child’s name to an adult who can respect himself and be respected by others.