Friday, June 26, 2015

Good Story 110: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

Scott and Julie argue about the meaning of "Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods." Neighbors tell them to take it to the edge of the woods because it's 2:00 a.m. and "some of us have work in the morning!" They quiet down long enough to discuss Mockingbird by Walter Tevis.

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The Mockingbird — A Virtuoso of Variety (from Bird Note podcast)

COMMENT that was too long for the comments boxes but which I (Julie) thought was well worth reading:
Hey Scott and Julie,

My apologies for the length of this email. It was too long for the comment box.

I started to listen to your podcast on "Mockingbird" by William Tevis. I was intrigued and stopped the podcast immediately so I could read the book. I agree, it is a very good book, highly recommended.

On the question about who the mockingbird is. I don't think you all went far enough.

You can make some points about who is mimicking whom. The drugged humans are in a way trying to mimic the robots, who in a way are mimicking humans. Paul and Mary Lou like stories and the old silent movies, and so they are in a way trying to mimic how to be human from them. But I think the strongest case applies to Spofforth.

1. Did you notice the book starts on page one with the birth or activation of Spofforth and ends on the last page with his death? Does the title of the book point to this fact?

2. As you all mentioned in the podcast, a mockingbird mimics the songs of other birds. Spofforth often whistled a song that he did not know. He also knew how to play the piano but never encountered a piano to demonstrate his ability.

Spofforth's mind was an "impression" made from a long dead human engineer. Despite their attempts to erase portions of the engineer's memories and personality, some things remained, like the song he whistled and his piano skills. His mind is an attempt to mimic a human mind.

3. Spofforth was tortured by a faint memory of a love he never experienced, presumably from an un-erased portion of the dead engineer's mind. We learn of two attempts that Spofforth tried to "mimic" this love. First was early in the book, near the beginning of his life with that girl with the scarlet coat with a black velvet collar. It failed. Near the end of his life, he tries again with Mary Lou. (Even bought a red coat for her too.)

He even thinks that he fell in love with Mary Lou, any yet it did not satisfy him. His melancholy persisted.

4. I think part of his melancholy could be due to that he did not have any good role models of humanity to mimic. His mind's impressions of humanity from the dead engineer were missing portions of "humanness". (Like the genetic code for a mockingbird to mimic other birds.) The humans he dealt with were already conditioned to be withdrawn and to rely on drugs to numb and inhibit their humanity. Later, the contraceptives in the drugs further suppress human expression by sharing their humanity with new life. I think he found human contemptible, especially after he told Mary Lou that he wished she would abort the baby.

You all really hit on a key point about creativity and its connection to being human. None of the humans in the story except for Paul, Mary Lou, and Annabelle created anything. Spofforth could repair things, but not create. Do mockingbirds create new songs, or do they strictly mimic?

5. Scott brought up the question about the mockingbird being at the edge of the woods--was the mockingbird singing into the woods or away from the woods? Maybe the mockingbird is just being itself on the edge of the woods, singing his song in both directions?

What if Spofforth, the mockingbird, is mimicking humanity at the "edge of the woods." The one human, Paul, that is stuck in the darkness in the middle of the woods is drawn toward the edge. After all, Paul does go to the university in New York from Ohio. And in the process of the novel, Paul passes from inside the woods to the outside.

So, I think the mockingbird is Spofforth.

Did you notice that Mary Lou supplied the missing word "woods" for Spofforth. It completed a line from a half-forgotten poem (I thought Spofforth could not forget anything), "Whose woods these are I think I know. His house..." (Ooo, a Robert Frost poem!)

Three other points:

Immolation -- why was this word used for suicide? Immolation means "to kill or offer as a sacrifice, especially by burning." It is a religious term! Who are they offering themselves to? A whole burnt offering for the sins of humanity? For redemption from a Babylonian-like exile from not living their gifted lives?

The line "My life is light, waiting for the death wind, Like a feather on the back of my hand" is from a poem by T.S. Elliot called, "A Song for Simeon"--the same Simeon who was waiting at the temple for death but not before he saw the Anointed One.

There is an important and yet subtle scene between Paul and the robot of the thought bus on the way from the town of Maugre to New York. (Did you notice that "Maugre" means in spite of, notwithstanding, to defy? Kind of fits the Baleen family.) It was just prior to the portion you read on the podcast about his appreciation and gratitude of the sunrise, the ability to read, and his wonderment about Jesus as a great man. Before that, Paul had commented on the Old Testament and did not particularly like the book of Job. Somewhere in there (maybe just before or after), he asked the thought bus robot about who he was, as in what was he, what was his purpose, what was the meaning of life? The robot's response was unfulfilling like Job's friends because it seemed to reiterate the slogans of the culture. And then Paul had an experience of transcendence and joy with the sunrise, leading into your comments. (Is the meaning of life beyond words?)

Maybe that was the real reason for Spofforth's melancholy--he knew or sensed that he could never have a true experience of transcendence. (Falling in love with Mary Lou did not supply it.) And yet Spofforth does in his last moment before his death; he experienced transcendence and joy in a sunrise too. He finally mimics the ultimate human experience, and is satisfied.

Thank you for a great podcast and the tip onto a great book. Like you all said, things from the book keep popping up.


  1. I've never read this or anything from the author, but your discussion up to the spoilers certainly got me interested.

    So I immediately went to Amazon to buy it and found it was part of KindleUnlimited along with some of his other books. So once again KindleUnlimited worked out for me and each month am reading much much more than the subscription price for now.

    1. I'm definitely going to have to tell my mother about how many great books you're finding on KindleUnlimited.

  2. We received a really great email from Mark Woodward that was too long for the comments boxes but which I included in the post for the podcast because it was so thoughtful and interesting. My response to that comment is below:

    Mark - wow, what a wonderful commentary. I've read it twice and will print it out to tuck into my copy of the book. So thoughtful and insightful.

    Much more than me, I totally admit. I am going to mention that I held out for Spofforth as the mockingbird, albeit without nearly as much thought because we only asked ourselves the question when it came up at that point of the podcast. And the idea that the mocking comes from all directions and ripples through the book is important because that is precisely what mockingbirds do.

    Come to think of it, mockingbirds also have their own calls for distress, warning, to their babies, etc. The "mocking" is part of their mating call and of their territorial claims. The longer they live and the more sounds they hear dictate how many calls they "mock." And that also works for the book. (Side note: we had a mockingbird that imitated our squeaky screen door once. And the other day I was sidetracked on a walk by one imitating a cat meowing.)

    I am really delighted that you were interested enough to get the book and then become the third participant as you have done.

  3. Dear Julie and Scott,

    I am a professional audiobook narrator and it was my great good fortune to be hired by Tantor Audio to record the Bentley and Spofforth sections of MOCKINGBIRD. It was my first introduction to the book and I fell in love with it. So it was a wonderful surprise to discover that you had devoted an episode to discussing Tevis's terrific book.

    It leads me to wonder whether you have come across or even discussed another work of similarly overlooked genius, which is a longtime favorite of mine and I think could be of interest to you: Russell H. Greenan's 1968 masterpiece IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? - about a brilliant painter who becomes so angry at God for allowing so much suffering and injustice in the world that he determines to meet and destroy him and take his place. Random House re-released it as a Modern Library edition in 2002, and I produced it in audio for the first time a year ago, in conjunction with a new Blurb edition put out by the author and his family. I would love to hear what you do with Greenan's incredible cast of characters, scenarios, and complex plot!

    1. Hi Robert, thank you so much for your comment. I haven't ever heard of It Happened in Boston? I'm going to go look for it now though!