In 1996, University of New Mexico senior Anders Nilsen began doodling birds in a sketchbook. "I was a painter and installation artist with grand plans," Nilsen recalled. "Looking back I think doing the strips was a way to be playful with my work again and have fun. Turn the pretension down a notch. Eventually I just realized it was more fun and rewarding than the other work I was doing. So I gave up more or less on the other work and devoted myself to the little birds." The little birds in question are the protagonists of Big Questions, a flock of gray finches living out their small lives in a windswept, remote wilderness. The only people around are a developmentally disabled man-child and his grandmother, minding their own business as the birds try to puzzle out the world. "That proved to be a theme," Nilsen said, "that kept me going for six hundred pages."
Those six hundred pages, drawn and written over the last fifteen years — with time off to create other works, including the Ignatz Award-winning Don't Go Where I Can't Follow, Nilsen's tender memorial to his late fiancée — comprise a newly released collection which Nilsen will present and sign Wednesday, July 27, at Pegasus Books (2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). Biq Questions starts out cute, but then bad things begin to happen: One bird's mate disappears, as does their tree home; another finds herself bullied into guarding a fallen bomb her friend believes to be an egg. Someone dies. A plane crashes. And the birds go on trying to make sense of it all with only their limited cache of experience to guide them.
Big Questions is subtitled "Or, Asomatognosia: whose hand it is anyway?" Nilsen first heard the word in an interview with neurologist and author Oliver Sachs, who writes, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, of patients who forget, disown, or deny some or all of their own body — usually an arm and hand. "When pressed on whose it might be," said Nilsen, "women will often say that it belongs to their husband, whereas men will often say it belongs to their mother-in-law. The story in Big Questions is a lot about how people see things happen in the world and then try to come up with reasons for them. I like the idea of asomatognosia as a sort of metaphor for our tendency to displace our own responsibility for our place in the world."
Nilsen's style is elegant, minimal, and meditative. His storytelling is abstract, his humor dry. Birds talk; humans don't. Yet it is the birds who are most mysterious, who keep us reading. "Early on I played with the idea of trying to differentiate them from one another with markings or the shapes of their tails or something," he said. "But in the end I decided that there's something sort of compelling about their sameness. They all have very different attitudes about what's happening, but because they look the same, hopefully it makes it easier to identify with all of them in turn — or at once.
"Part of the reason I was able to stick with it is that I found it tremendously entertaining," he said. "Every time I would come back to it, to see what these little birds were up to, they'd surprise me a little bit." 7:30 p.m., free. 510-649-1320 or Pegasus.indiebound.com