When Jeff VanderMeer posed the surrealistic question "Who, or what, is Last Drink Bird Head?", the 500-word responses included luminaries like Michael Moorcock and Stephen Donaldson as well as newer authors you'll be thrilled to discover. The result is thirst-quenching.
VanderMeer's odd question is actually an old surrealist game, designed to stimulate the unconscious and thereby produce strange and wonderful new work. The results are collected in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's flash fiction collection, Last Drink Bird Head. The collection of short pieces-meant, as VanderMeer says, "for dipping."
Despite the provenance of its premise, Last Drink Bird Head is not entirely a surrealist piece. Certainly some of it, like K. J. Bishop's piece or VanderMeer's own contribution, reject the order imposed on the conscious mind, and dwell firmly in the subconscious dreamscape; in both of these cases, the stories are remarkable for the way in which they absolutely revel in language — the former with beautiful cadence and rhythm strongly reminiscent of Edith Sitwell, the latter a weird exercise in the almost-comprehensible that can't help but evoke James Joyce. Some of the shorts, like Michael Swanwick's or Sarah Monette's, are comparatively prosaic science fiction. This is by no means a slight, their work is delightful; it's just real instead of surreal.
The collection, because of its structure, runs a gamut from Rachel Swirsky's melancholy down-to-earth story about a physicist and his family, to Desrina Boskovich's vision of a cosmic apocalyptic figure. Because of this, if the book can be said to suffer at all, it's only because of its steadfast refusal to permit itself to be read all in one sitting. Like the sippy dipping bird that the title brings to mind, a reader is encouraged to take it in small doses, lest rapid gear changes turn the whole thing into a bizarre, indistinguishable slur.
So, who or what is Last Drink Bird Head? Sometimes he's just Last, and a harbinger of the end of the world. Eric Schaller sees him cavorting with the Holy Grail, drinking himself into a stupor as everything comes crashing down. Sometimes he's a Last Drink, so he's a beverage; Ekaterina Sedia and Drew Rhys White both describe a drink made from birds, cutting with precision to an eerie, human horror of which the drink is only a mask. Sometimes he's a man with a bird head, and a monster; sometimes, he's a man with a bird head and a hero, sometimes he's a man with a bird head and is a stranger.
Every piece, regardless of how real or surreal it aspires to be, manages still to achieve a kind of dream-like quality—events occur without explanation, mysteries go unresolved simple actions are given inexplicable significance. If you need a moment in the morning to sharpen your mind, or want to take a few minutes in the afternoon to stoke your imagination, or some time at night to provoke a mystic, faraway mood, then Last Drink Bird Head has something for you.