What could animated sit-com episodes and literary short stories possibly have in common? They’re both narratives. More specifically, what does the cartoon sit-com Bob’s Burgers episode “Hormone-iums” (2016) have in common with Ben Fountain’s short story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” (2002)? Both deploy a particular model of plot arc—a character put in the position of a dream backfiring, forcing him/her to choose between two competing desires.
“Horomone-iums,” written by Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux, opens with the adolescent Tina Belcher leading a vivacious musical number (complete with sparkly tuxedos) about pimples, the “new friends on your face.” This is quickly revealed to be just a dream, however, the source of which is Tina’s desire to be a soloist in her eponymous musical group. Tina’s other desire? To play Spin the Bottle at a much anticipated upcoming party. Her long-standing obsession with kissing, established in previous episodes as a defining character trait, is given a specific outlet in this episode when her friend is going to take advantage of a 45-minute interval of parental absence to play the kissing game that Tina has analyzed in depth:
“…the bottle’s rotation is pretty predictable if you can figure out the drag so you just…”
When the Hormone-iums’ soloist comes down with mono, Tina is promoted by default, just in time for the show that’s been facilitated directly by the original soloist’s absence: Tina will play Mona Nucleosis in a musical warning about the dangers of mono. Initially, Tina is thrilled to have the lead, her dream come true. But when the school halls start sprouting advertising banners with Tina’s picture on them sporting prominent warnings not to kiss her, Tina, much to her chagrin, starts to understand the consequences she’s gotten herself into as she becomes “the cover girl of No Kissing magazine” and is uninvited from the Spin-the-Bottle party.
As rehearsals continue of dramatic scenes of kissing causing Mona’s death, Tina becomes ever more reticent, prompting Mr. Frond, the Hormone-iums’ headstrong director (for whom the show is an unprecedented opportunity), to promise Tina a permanent soloist position if she goes through with the performance. The night before curtain, Tina has a heart-to-heart with her father about her difficult choice, and Bob tells her, “You’re in charge of your own mouth.” During the show Tina improvises a new ending, rejecting the soloist offer to tell the truth about kissing’s harmlessness.
The episode includes a subplot in which Tina’s mother Linda has stumbled upon what she believes to be an ingenious idea, a “wine shoe” (a plus-sized woman’s high heel that becomes a handy bottle sleeve). This thread initially seems utterly disconnected from Tina’s, but intersects when Linda starts to refer to selling the shoe as her dream. Encountering immediate obstacles on the path to mass distribution, Linda opines, “Oh, well, what’s the use of having dreams if they can’t be crushed?” The intersection becomes more overt when Linda, again complaining of dashed dreams, prompts a tortured response from Tina that is itself a succinct description of the episode’s plot model:
Linda: I really thought I’d get my dream.
Tina: Dreams are dumb! They ruin your life!
In “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” our protagonist, Blair, is an impoverished ornithology graduate student who goes to Colombia to study birds and is abducted by a rebel cartel. His camera equipment arouses suspicions that he is a spy, but even once it becomes apparent he’s far from it, the rebels keep him on their compound with the distant and unrealistic hope that he might elicit a ransom. Eventually Blair’s nonthreatening nature becomes apparent enough, amidst his intermittent discussion with his captors on the principles of revolution, that they let him roam, albeit with a guard, to study the birds in the area; he discovers the Andean cordillera around the compound contains the eponymous species previously thought extinct, a “remnant colony of Crimson-capped parrots.”
Blair’s meticulous observations and documentation of his discovery keeps him sane during his lengthening captivity—though he knows his work is essentially useless without the camera they still won’t let him use—and he even bonds with Hernan, his young guard, whose dramatic tales of life as a revolutionary become mixed with Blair’s notes:
He wrote it all because it all seemed bound together in some screamingly obvious way that he couldn’t quite get.
But he’ll get it by the end. Hernan informs him of rumors of his potential release:
“Maybe I’ll stay,” Blair said, testing the idea on himself. “There isn’t an ornithologist in the world who’s doing the work I’m doing here.”
“No, Joan, I think you should go. You can come back after we’ve won the war.”
“What, when I’m eighty?” Blair chewed a blade of grass and reflected for a moment. “I still don’t have my photo. I’m not going anywhere until I get that.”
Miraculously, some Americans show up, but not for Blair, it turns out. The chairman of the New York Stock Exchange has come to test the prospects for foreign investment. The chairman’s aid is apologetic that, due to laws about interfering with kidnapping negotiations, they can’t help Blair, who is understandably crushed when he figures out that they’re not there to rescue him (“Much as we’d like to help, our hands are tied.”). Not long thereafter, the aid somewhat insensitively enlists Blair as a translator for a conversation in which Blair inadvertently learns the more specific prospect the foreigners have come for—to log the area around the compound. Aghast, Blair immediately points out that this will wipe out the endangered parrots, and refutes his captor Alberto’s hypocritical claims that they have to do this for the sake of funding the revolution.
“We have to save the country, Joan Blair.”
“You think there’ll be something to save when they’re done with it?”
When the environmental issue seems to make the Americans reticent (seemingly more for the sake of their image and the red tape it could lead to than for the environment itself), Alberto insists the Americans take Blair when they leave as part of closing the deal. Blair insists he will stay, but is shuffled to the helicopter anyway, where Hernan slips a film capsule in his hand that presumably contains the only pictures of the Crimson-capped Parrot that will ever exist. When the NYSE chairman asks what freedom feels like, Blair thinks it feels like dying.
The two narratives both clearly set up two distinct desires for the protagonist that the narrative eventually reveals to be at odds; Tina’s desire to be soloist turns out to conflict with her desire to engage in kissing, while it turns out that the only way Blair can secure his desperately sought freedom is by condemning the rare birds he loves to death.
Like Tina’s, the thing that Blair is most attached to predates the start of the narrative (an element, then, of chronic tension):
Blair was twelve the first time it happened, on a trip to the zoo—he came on the aviary’s teeming mosh pit of cockatoos and macaws and Purple-naped Lories, and it was as if an electric arc had shot through him. And he’d felt it every time since, this jolt, the precision stab in the heart whenever he saw Psittacidae—he kept expecting it to stop but it never did, the impossibly vivid colors like some primal force that stoked the warm liquid center of your soul.
The narratives introduce the acute tension of a competing desire, with the climax of both being the choice between these desires. In both narratives this climactic choice is a triumph of integrity: Blair chooses the birds over his freedom; Tina chooses not to spread misinformation to her peers for the sake of her own small stardom. But Tina’s and Blair’s narratives diverge in a manner that marks the difference between literary and mass appeal when Tina’s choice actually has concrete consequences. She’s able to change the musical and its message, but Blair gets no such agency. He makes his choice when he declares that he will stay rather than have the land logged, but this is not an exchange he’s been offered. His priorities have been clarified, as have Tina’s, but his choice has no concrete consequence in terms of actually saving the birds. Fountain’s narrative goes a step further than Bob’s’ in terms of complexity in that once the character makes the choice, he actually gets the opposite. The moment you understand how important something is to you is the moment it’s taken away. On TV we get a happy ending, in literature tragic. No wonder so many of us eschew the latter for the former. One is an escape from real life while the other engages with its difficulties.
Cover image from here.