TEXT review

Experimental and exegetical: Joshua Lobb’s flock of stories

review by Lynette Washington



Joshua Lobb
The Flight of Birds
Sydney University Press, Sydney NSW 2019
ISBN 9781743325834
Pb 340pp AUD 35.00


The Flight of Birds
by Joshua Lobb, a novel in twelve stories, is accompanied by an exegetical work. As the title indicates, the stories feature birds and their interactions with people. The reader is asked, at least initially, to consider the stories purely as fictional enterprises, isolated from the ‘Field Notes’ which follow at the end of the novel component. Rightly so, as first and foremost the role of a story is to engage the reader; it needs to function as a story before any other purpose, such as exegetical insight, can be attained.

Theories on what constitutes a short story are as varied as the form itself, and Lobb’s work challenges these ideas on several fronts by: publishing the stories in tandem with the theoretical component and thereby asking them to serve an additional, academic, purpose; asking the stories to be more than individual entities by sculpting them into a novel form; and experimenting with form and structure.

Wendy Martin cuts to the chase in The Art of the Short Story when she says that ‘…successful fiction takes a variety of paths to reach the same goal: entertaining the reader’ (Martin 2006: 2). I would argue that in order to be entertained, you first must be engaged. To be engaged, you must be taken out of the world you are in when you first open the book, and you must feel something. You need to forget the chill in the air, the dishes in the sink, the tightness in your shoulders because you are instead absorbed into the narrative, empathetic and experiencing as the characters experience. Entering the character’s world with empathy is, after all, a primary purpose of fiction.

This was my desire when I opened The Flight of Birds: to forget the tightness in my shoulders, to be transported spatially and temporally. However, there were immediate barriers to achieving that goal. The physical construction of a book is important and plays a role in this transportation. As we know from the experience of ebooks, holding a book in our hands has inherent value. The value is in the feel of the pages, the weight and texture of the cover, the reminder of the scent of ink, among many other things. The Flight of Birds is printed on bright, white paper which detracts from this sensory and aesthetic pleasure. Much like the tiny cognitive dissonance caused by the blinding whiteness of the page, the first stories in the collection sport their theoretical origins and impetuses like white coats. It is impossible not to notice the artifice, the construction, the work.  They hold a sense that it wasn’t the story that came first, but the theory and this awareness made me think about the dishes in the sink: it took me out of the story world.

Joshua Lobb describes the impetus for the stories thus:

Four thoughts intertwined with each other: a desire to understand birds on their own terms; a questioning of my own position in relation to birds; a sense that the particular can’t be separated from the planetary; and a hope that telling stories about another species might draw attention to the planetary, overcome anthropocentricism and give agency to birds. (219-220)

It is clear from the exegetical pages at the end of the book that the theoretical ideas behind the stories were front of mind for Lobb. It is interesting that the storytelling element of his foundational ideas come last in the list, preceded by other desires and questions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: we write to understand, to unravel, to make sense of. But then, we consider our reader and we rewrite with them in mind.

Lobb’s approach is informed by fictocriticism, an idea he explores through various standpoints before recognising that, ‘Unfortunately, the explicit mode of fictocriticism does not always have the desired effect’ (230). The desired effect is to ‘engage the reader with a political position in an intimate way through fictional tropes’ (228). He does this by employing ‘creative strategies alongside critical ones’ (227) explicitly in ‘Six Stories About Birds’ and ‘Do You Speak My Language?’ and implicitly in all the other stories. The danger in this approach, as Lobb himself recognises, is that the theory dominates the story.

Lobb explains his approach towards writing the stories in The Flight of Birds:

Each of the twelve stories that comprise my novel takes as its starting point a question or concern raised by critics in animal studies (or related fields) and tries to present a different facet of the idea through fiction. (233)

Lobb begins several of the stories with a reference point – a television show, a documentary, a song, a quote from a book – and it is these moments (combined with Lobb’s often detached writing style, that contains remnants of academic writing), that pinpoint the writer’s process a little too precisely. At times the research appears obtrusive. These stories, for example ‘Do You Speak My Language’ and ‘Six Stories About Birds, with Seven Questions’, seem to be caught between arguing a point and telling a story and it feels as though the research has guided the narrative in an obstructive, overly obvious way. ‘Six Stories’ has a delightful structure, but the tone is a little cold, academic, until brief flashes of reprise when Lobb surprises the reader with poetic moments such as ‘We scrutinise the air, but all I see is the loneliness of the night and all we hear is our own breathing’ (15). These are the lovely transportive moments of fiction that Lobb sprinkles sparsely throughout the stories.

In addition to approaching storytelling through the mode of fictocriticism, Lobb experiments with structure in several interesting ways. In ‘Call and Response’ he mimics the call and response of birds within the structure of the story. The structure flows effortlessly on the page as the story reads like the sounds of birds calling out to each other and responding. In ‘Flocking’ he uses collective nouns – which are always charming! – as subheadings (‘A Company of Parrots’, ‘A Weight of Albatrosses’, ‘A Solitude of Space’). In ‘And No Birds Sing’ he uses a right-hand column to list extinct species of bird in a haunting call to arms for species protection, and cleverly juxtaposes this with the central character’s emotional unravelling. These formal experiments add texture and life to the stories and are in some ways reminiscent of the formal experiments in Ryan O’Neill’s brilliant The Weight of a Human Heart (2012).

Where Lobb excels is in the exquisitely delicate threads between the stories. Lobb calls this a novel, and while the semantics of what constitutes a novel are well outside the bounds of this review, I would argue that the structure more closely resembles connected short stories, or a short story cycle, much like Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking Dogs (2017) or my own Plane Tree Drive (2017). In these collections the narrative consists of standalone stories that, when placed together, create an enhanced whole. Certainly, that is the case for The Flight of Birds, in which narrative threads, for example, the father-son relationship and the development from boyhood into manhood of the central character, are borne out over several stories. These threads, silk-like in their subtlety, are a joy to the reader, who is asked to seek them out and piece them together. This reader-work creates opportunities for deep engagement and allows the reader to feel more enmeshed in the lives of the characters. It is perhaps the singular pleasure of the story cycle that allows this, and Lobb achieves this beautifully.

The Flight of Birds is a complex read that is at once delightfully subtle and irritatingly obvious. Lobb hits the mark many times, but, at times pushes too far into the mode of fictocritism for some of the stories to be wholly successful. If the role of academic writing is to ask the reader to think, and the role of fictional writing is to ask the reader to feel, placing these two tasks together, as ficrocriticism does, creates inevitable tension that requires exceptionally careful balancing that Lobb himself recognises is difficult to achieve. Ultimately my decision on the success of this balance came down to whether my shoulders relaxed, and I forgot the dishes in the sink and the chill in the air. Of course, this task was also rendered artificial by the other task at hand – writing this review. Regardless of the individual reader’s decision on this matter, the work, including the exegetical component, is undoubtably a rare treat, and a valuable pedagogical resource.


Works cited



Lynette Washington is an author, editor, mentor, teacher and publisher. Her debut, Plane Tree Drive, was Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Shortlisted for the MUBA. Her stories have been published widely and performed at events such as Spineless Wonders Presents and Quart Short Literary Readings. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Her publishing house, Glimmer Press, launched in 2019 with the publication of To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?, a collection of illustrated children’s poetry by Kristin Martin and Joanne Knott.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford