Lessons Learned from Josh Malerman’s Bird Box – An Essay

The first time I attempted to read Bird Box I did not like it. I made it only a couple chapters in, and the thriller style pacing turned me off. Over the months, the story bugged me until I picked it back up. That time I finished the full story and loved it. But, for this class, I slowed down and scribbled notes in the margins and plastered it with sticky flags, and, only now do I truly have an appreciation for why this novel is such a big deal. Josh’s scenes are visceral even without the use of the visual sense. I also love how he structures his chapters. But, my favorite thing about this book, is Josh’s masterful execution of tension and release.

Warning! Spoilers ahead!

Stop reading here if you haven’t read the book and plan to.

Absence of the Visual

Bird Box book cover

For half of the story the characters are robbed of humanity’s primary sense, sight. Josh presents it to us in a fashion that doesn’t feel out of place. At times I would forget that the descriptions are completely absent of visual elements. One of my favorite scenes is in the second half of the book, when Malorie takes Victor to the bar to find the microphones . Here, we learn that animals can indeed go mad as we experience Victor’s horrifying last moments after seeing one of the creatures:

“She crawled onto [the carpeted riser], afraid to turn her back on what Victor had seen. Huddled and shaking, she listened to the dog go mad. The sound of him pissing. The sound of his teeth snapping as he bit the empty air…Victor bit the air. He snapped again. It sounded like his teeth were cracking…She heard Victor’s bone pop. His fur and flesh ripped.”

I can absolutely feel this scene, even in the absence of visual description. I will be coming back to this section for further study.

Chapter Structure

Josh also structures his chapters very well. Each has its own arc, is focused on getting a singular idea across, and, many times, ends in a sort of cliffhanger which catapults the reader into the next chapter and the next chapter before Josh finally relents and gives us an ending. My absolute favorite scene is chapter thirteen. This is the “well” scene.

It starts in media res with Felix doing some everyday task like he’s done many other times before, collecting water from the well. Everything is nice and calm until he hears something. This makes him nervous, but he brushes it off and continues. He then hears another odd sound when he drops the bucket in the well, “Something moved. Something moved in the water. Did something move in the water?” He’s a bit more shaken by this, but continues his duty, pulling up the loaded bucket of water, all while questioning himself if the bucket is heavier than usual.

The final straw is when he pulls the bucket to the top and he hears footsteps in the grass nearby. Here he flips out and runs to the house, causing panic with everyone there as well. They all conclude that there could be something out there and they all further barricade the house and sit in a room waiting for anything to happen. Nobody knows what these creatures really are capable of. Will boarded windows stop one of them from coming in if determined? The chapters leave us, the readers, wondering the same as they sit waiting. It is near impossible to not continue reading into the next chapter to find out what happens next .

That chapter establishes that the housemates have gotten comfortable with their day to day life, and it reminds both them and us, that the world is drastically more dangerous than before. At any time, something could bust into their little sanctuary and wreak havoc, destroying them all, or just poison their water supply. Is drinking water contaminated by one of these creatures dangerous? Will that also make one go mad?

Tension Manipulation

The most admirable bit about Bird Box, is Josh’s deft manipulation of tension. The well scene is a study in the slow build of tension. With each odd sound becoming more and more unhinging the tension rises higher and higher until we readers get some reprieve when all are safe back inside. Quickly the tension ratchets back up when they lose their sense of safety and realize their water supply may be tainted. The chapter ends and we readers keep going in hopes of further reprieve. But Josh rips us away to the other timeline, later, when Malorie and the children are on the river. The high tension is maintained throughout the short break until, a few pages later, with chapter fifteen. This chapter starts with them acknowledging the water situation.

The tension continues to build. Tom volunteers to be a human guinea pig and try the water himself, locked in a room so he doesn’t hurt anyone if he goes mad. He is both alive and dead until someone opens the door and Tom comes out, unharmed, proving the water is safe and the tension is finally released, and everything returns to a sort of status quo.

I’m glad I read this book again. I fear that I would have missed out on these lessons if I had not slowed down and taken notice. I will be returning to both sections to further pull them apart and see how Josh put it all together.

Bird Box with lots of post it flags


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