In Andrew Kaufman’s third novel, five siblings with the surname Weird feel they don’t quite fit into the world. The Weirds don’t have the exaggerated strangeness of some of Kaufman’s previous characters, like The Waterproof Bible’s green-skinned, underwater-city resident Aberystwyth. They only feel different.
On the occasion of his or her birth, each Weird child is bestowed with a “blursing,” an ostensible blessing that over the course of a lifetime becomes a curse. The blursings don’t give the Weirds superpowers, just particular capabilities or predispositions: Lucy never gets lost, Abba never loses hope, Richard is programmed to keep himself safe from harm, Kent is able to defend himself from all threats, and Angie always forgives.
As Kaufman’s novel begins, Angie is summoned to her grandmother’s hospital room in Vancouver. Dubbed “The Shark” by the Weird siblings, the grandmother tells Angie she must gather her brothers and sisters and return on the day she has predicted she will die. If Angie proves able to complete this task, the Shark promises to remove all the blursings.
Angie is sceptical at first, but she becomes convinced when an engine failure on her flight back to New York City results in an emergency landing in Winnipeg, where her sister Lucy lives. (The Weirds are not the sort of people who take coincidence lightly.) Angie’s journey takes her across Canada, then to the fictional country of Upliffta, with a final stop at the siblings’ childhood home in Toronto.
Kaufman is interested in how chaotic emotions can be, and the ways in which people attempt to contain the mess. Rebecca, the protagonist of The Waterproof Bible, has to literally bottle up her feelings to ensure they do not contaminate others. In Born Weird the blursings do not define or delineate the siblings, but serve as double-edged swords. Angie always forgives, but never stops to examine the causes of her hurt. (As a result, she seeks out a partner whom she completely takes for granted, assuming he will never be able to hurt her.) Abba’s hope for the future prevents her from fully living in the present. Richard equates love with weakness, which bumps up against his instinct for self-preservation. Lucy believes that to fall in love is to lose oneself, and consequently seeks out only casual sexual encounters.
Kaufman uses the blursings to examine the mythologies foisted upon children, which serve to entrap the adults they become. Kent alludes to the way the blursings – idées fixes from birth – resemble a photograph freezing a moment in time, rendering change impossible. Flashbacks to the siblings’ childhood suggest the blursings really took hold after their father’s disappearance. (The Weird children suspect their father is dead, but no body has been found, so they don’t completely believe this – especially ever hopeful Abba.) When their mother withdraws from reality altogether, the adolescent Weirds are left to fend for themselves.
It’s clear Kaufman has buried a lot in his narrative. The specific and repeated noting of addresses, flight and seat numbers, dates, and spans of time suggest a deeper meaning. For a reader not particularly disposed to puzzles or code games, deciphering the significance of these elements is difficult. Other non-numerical mysteries in the narrative – the meanings of overly wordy epitaphs, for example, or clues to the Weird father’s disappearance –require time and attention to appreciate. Figuring these things out are the rewards of repeated readings.
Perhaps because of the attention devoted to codes and puzzles (or because of the distraction they create), the novel sometimes feels shallow, especially when it devolves into a plethora of platitudes in its last quarter. Once assembled, the siblings descend upon their mother’s retirement home, where she acts as a sort of oracle. The Shark offers further life lessons at the moment of her death, and each sibling does likewise at the novel’s end. The careful demolition of each blursing is made meaningless by such repetition.
Born Weird does not suffer overmuch from these missteps. Spending time with the Weirds is enjoyable, and Kaufman has a gift for quick repartee among his characters. However, it’s ironic that as the siblings get closer to accessing their genuine feelings, the novel begins to pull away from the urgency of real emotion. The Weirds’ motto is “truth isn’t fair,” so why does the book conclude so tidily? Perhaps it’s because this is what fairy tales and children’s books do, and it serves the characters’ inner children to allow them their happy endings.