Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Some Notes On the Present and Future Of This Blog

I'm going to open with a statement, just to get it out of the way, since what follows might sound like I'm signing off on Chicago Ex-Patriate: I'm not at all giving up on this blog. To be very honest, the thought of stopping my postings makes me emotional. As I've mentioned a handful of times, this site had very hazy, different origins. I had just moved to Washington state after a much too dragged out breakup, with no real prospects or knowledge of what I wanted to do with my life. My first instinct was to write a cute travelogue of sorts--documenting Seattle and its suburbs as I discovered what it had to offer. I was unemployed, living off the charity of my older brother, and living in a place I had never even visited before moving. If you'll glance to your right, I've already explained the (now embarrassing) origins of the blog's name, and the subsequent handle I adopted. Before writing any thoughts on the West Coast, I ended up reading a bunch of Italo Calvino works and thought it would be cool to do some literary criticism. After that, the book essays started flowing. I was slowly reading in a much more intelligent way than I used to; for an undergrad English major, I spent the majority of my twenties bar hopping and reading and writing very sporadically. The last five years' worth of essays and reviews are a noticeable culmination in my maturity and dedication to literature, literary studies, and my own fiction writing.

Because of this blog, my first college English teacher (Jeremy Bushnell) reached out to me to contribute to a music collective, and that led to joining him as he founded Instafiction. Through Instafiction, I had a very short piece published in The Chicago Reader. I've always looked up to Jeremy over the years, and we grew from old acquaintances into close friends. And not long after, he shared some great news: we were offered positions as the Fiction Editors of Longform. Around this time, after reading hundreds of short stories, I rekindled my early desire to write fiction. Taking cues from some masters both old and new, I started churning out new material. Most of it was shaky, a lot of it has been rejected, but I did have my first piece published in April, in, of all places, Hobart, one of my absolute favorite literary magazines. Where am I going with these haphazard reflections? None of it would have been possible had I not started writing my book reviews here, doing a lot of reading and dusting off the skills I had let slide after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Also, my writing has improved to the point that I'm weeks away from beginning my MFA candidacy in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University. Therefore, much of my time will be devoted to classwork, and while I plan to keep up on outside readings and Longform work, I won't be able to consistently churn out five or six full length book reviews every month. I also need to start submitting my reviews elsewhere. As much as I love having this site as my home, where I'm free to post and muse on whatever I'd like, I want to start putting my reviews in different journals. You might find that most of the upcoming book reviews might be for older backlist titles; the new books that I read will be written about and sent elsewhere, hopefully increasing my number of publications.

I may post book and writing news, but I haven't decided--most of what I discover and learn comes from writers, bloggers, and literary journals with great reputations, so it's not like I have an inside scoop. Any news I post will probably have been documented far and wide by the time I get to it.

I do have some essays in the works before I begin my first semester, but I wanted to take a moment to explain all of this, in case anyone checks this out even semi-consistently and doesn't see as much updating. I'm never getting rid of Chicago Ex-Patriate; it'll just be taking a different form while I work for my Master's Degree. And I'm hopeful that I'll have many publication updates in due time, as well as notes about my time at Roosevelt. I'm often staggered by how much I've grown since starting this space back in 2008. I never thought I'd be at this point, with the maturity I have now, and the dedication to make myself a serious fiction writer. I'm a drastically different person now, and the ups and downs of my writings here show that. And I can't wait to begin even more discoveries and growth as I have my writing praised, derided, ripped apart, and analyzed within a graduate setting. I know I'll be learning and growing so much over the next two years.

Thanks for reading. Much love and respect to everyone who has helped me grow.

-James Yates

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Consumed: Jami Attenberg, "The Middlesteins," and the Social Novel


Upon finishing The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg's 2012 novel, I realized I admired it for a reason similar to Alissa Nutting's Tampa. Much like Nutting used sexual abuse as a device to reflect other problems, Attenberg's novel uses obesity and food addiction to highlight other issues. Its striking cover design, mimicking a crumpled fast food wrapper, would seem to indicate a novel about a woman's addiction and how it reflects societal addictions as a whole. However, that's not the case: the majority of the novel's core is a story about an extended family with unexpected divisions, unities, and tensions. Edie, the obese, food-addicted mother, is the center, with the problems circulating in spite of and because of her unique problems. While a reader may or may not see the same problems in his or her own family, there are more than a handful of issues that we can relate to, even if in a veiled manner. It's fitting that Jonathan Franzen provided the cover blurb for The Middlesteins, since it so aptly reflects his assessment that (and this isn't an exact quote) "the only average American family I know is my own." By using a series of flashbacks, revealing unexpected crises at various intervals throughout the text, and drawing some unexpected closures, Attenberg practically dares the reader to come in with expectations, knowing that she will break them or at least have them veer into a sharp turn when one expects a straight trajectory.

The Middlesteins are an upper middle class Jewish family in the suburbs of Chicago. Edie is preparing for another surgery in relation to her weight, and her husband Richard is at his breaking point. They are the parents of two children, Robin and Benny. Robin, while worried about her mother, is dealing with her own crises, from her lapsed faith to her uneasy romance/friendship with a young man named Daniel. Benny, at first glance, seems to be the more "stable" of the two--he has a wife, twins, and a large house, but things are tense on his end as well. His wife, Rachelle, feels he isn't concerned enough about his mother's well-being, and she even goes as far as to occasionally spy on her mother-in-law. Edie's food addiction isn't presented as a typical American obsession; it has roots in her upbringing as the child of once starving immigrants. Some chapters are titled with Edie's weight at a given time, and the opening chapter, "Edie, 62 Pounds" is written with dizzying implications. Edie's mother doesn't want to deny her daughter, but even without saying so, she knows something is wrong. However, she always gives in to her too-growing child.

"Her mother sat there with her arm around her daughter, until she did the only thing left she could do. She reached behind them on the floor and grabbed the loaf of rye bread, still warm in its wrapping paper, baked not an hour before at Schiller's down on Fifty-third Street, and pulled off a hunk of it and handed it to her daughter, who ignored her, and continued to sob, unforgiving, a tiny mean bone having just been formed.

'Good,' said her mother. 'More for me.'

How long do you think it took before Edie turned her head and stuck her trembling hand out for food? Her mouth hanging open expectantly, yet drowsily, like a newborn bird (Attenberg 6)."

Because of Edie's condition, several events occur, leading to their own unique plot diversions. Richard abruptly leaves his wife and begins a madcap series of encounters with online dating. Benny and Rachelle's children are preparing for their b'nai mitzvah, adding to their already heavy schedules. Robin is still making sense of her life and where she should be going, a stress in itself in addition to worrying about her mother. She accompanies Daniel to his family's Seder after much deliberation and worry, and she finds a bickering family not terribly different from her own. Her lapsed relationship with Judaism and her family blends very explicitly.

"'Me and Judaism, we don't get along,' she said.

'It's a family dinner,' he said. 'With just a touch of Jew.'

'Please,' she said. 'Don't make me.'

'I'm the one saying please,' he said. 'You're the one saying no.'

She crushed herself into a ball on his couch, knees up, arms around her legs, head against her knees.

'Why is this so hard for you, to just say yes? It's a dinner, a really good dinner, with some nice people. It's not a big deal.'

'If it's not a big deal, then why do I have go to?' she said.

Daniel sat next to her on the couch, and, in a shocking display of spine, put his face next to hers and said, 'What is this really about (Attenberg 103)?'"

I'll admit to not knowing much about how contemporary Judaism is experienced within modern Jewish families--perhaps there's a struggle or a bigger metaphor that links the Jewish history to the modern situation of the Middlestein family. However, the looming b'nai mitzvah grows closer, and the reader wonders how everyone will come together to celebrate the ceremony of the youngest members of the family. The Seder mentioned above is possibly a way for Robin to interact with another semi-dysfunctional family before another interaction with her own. Richard, despite being estranged from his family after leaving Edie, is allowed to accompany his grandchildren to the temple for a practice ceremony. He's appalled by their behavior and sees many similarities between his granddaughter Emily and the antics of Robin when she was that age. It's a culture and age clash, and is rendered very clearly and painfully. The reader is uncomfortable, as if witnessing the situation in public, and feels sorry for Richard's dilemma.

"Middlestein looked at Emily, smashed up against the window, dark, fearful eyes. She knew she had screwed up.

'If I were your father, I'd smack you so hard your head would spin,' he said.

Emily's eyes widened, but she did not cry.

'But I'm not. I am your grandfather. So all I can tell you is that was just terrible, terrible behavior tonight. You, too, Josh. Just because you're the lesser of two evils, that doesn't mean you weren't being bad (Attenberg 215).'"



Attenberg has fun with family names. A later portion of the novel is told from the point of view of a conglomerate of families attending the b'nai mitzvah. And upon reflection, the Middlestein name is carefully chosen. This might seem like an obvious assessment, but everyone in the family is caught in the middle of something, from Edie's weight to their own everyday problems. However, the name also implies, at least for me, the idea of being average, and not in a negative way. The Middlesteins is about a unique family, but anyone can see similar problems within his or her own family. Therefore, "the middle" is both a larger context and a very apt portrayal of the issues as they are presented and resolved (or unresolved in some cases).

That brings me to another positive reflection with Attenberg's prose. There are many revelations and secrets within the family, but as they are revealed, she does so in a straightforward manner, without any big "ah ha" reveals. The various personal scandals are real and, well, personal and don't need to be accentuated with any needless twists. Richard and Edie end up falling in love with different people. This is hinted at until it becomes reality, and while some could see these relationships unfolding a mile away, they're both handled honestly. At the novel's end, Richard makes peace with his granddaughter in a very moving scene. Attenberg writes very masterful, dramatic dialogue, alternating between dark comedy and unsentimental emotions. There are so many scenes and passages that are begging to be overwrought and sappy, but Attenberg is careful to keep things centered, even in the face of heightened emotions and senses.

"'We're going to talk about your grandmother's health for a little bit,' said Robin.

'Maybe we shouldn't do that in front of her,' said her grandmother.

'Is it going to bum you out?' said Robin.

'The whole thing is already a bummer,' said Emily. Her grandmother started to cry. 'Don't cry,' said Emily, and then she started to cry, and so did Robin. Anna walked up with three dishes of ice cream, made a small, horrified expression with her mouth, and then walked away, silver dishes in hand.

'Everyone cut it out,' Robin said finally, dabbing her eyes with a napkin.

'It's going to be fine, honey,' said her grandmother, who did not stop the tears dripping from her face. 'Come here, bubbeleh.' She extended her arms toward Emily, who slung her one good arm around her grandmother's torso and clung tightly (Attenberg 188)."

It's also curious to note how little of the novel is devoted to explicit depictions of Edie's food addiction. That's not to say that there aren't notable passages of such a large idea in the novel, but again, Attenberg shows wise restraint. As I'm fond of saying, in other hands, there would be many more pages laden with almost pornographic detail. By keeping the focus on the family as a whole, the reader never forgets why everything is happening: Edie is very unhealthy and at risk for even more damage. When Attenberg does show Edie engaged in her downfall, the writing is crisp and unforgiving. A little bit goes quite a long way.

"She cracked open the McRib box and eyed the dark red, sticky sandwich. Suddenly she felt like an animal; she wanted to drag the sandwich somewhere, not anywhere in this McDonald's, not a booth, not Playland, but to a park, a shrouded corner of woods underneath shimmering tree branches, green, dark, and serene, and then, when she was certain she was completely alone, she wanted to tear that sandwich apart with her teeth. But she couldn't just leave her children there, could she? You didn't need to be a graduate of Northwestern Law to know that that was illegal (Attenberg 97)."

The Middlesteins is one of the better family sagas I've read in awhile, and perhaps this is because I've been so focused on short stories as of late (generally, the stories I read, even if they mention families, are focused solely on individuals). As I mentioned before, the packaging of this novel hints to something else--a contemporary novel about grotesque food addiction. But someone picking this up sight unseen and expecting a voyeuristic modern downfall will be steered elsewhere. The food is just one of many problems Edie suffers. Therefore, this novel will remain timely for quite some time, whereas fiction that attempts to capture the modern world solely with too many specifics will grow dated and unnecessary very quickly. However, this is a story of a family with timeless problems, hopes, and fears. There are no gimmicks or attempts to cling to passing modern ideas. The reader becomes swept up in the family's sometimes comical journey, and the the biggest issue sometimes becomes a side note. I'm very impressed with Jami Attenberg's prose and dialogue, and The Middlesteins is a very quick read that still gives the reader a variety of issues to think about and analyze. I may say this often, but it never loses its necessity: contemporary novels can be both entertaining and mentally stimulating. The Middlesteins achieves this quite well and opens up many avenues I didn't expect to encounter.

Work Cited:
Attenberg, Jamie. The Middlesteins. Copyright 2012 by Jami Attenberg.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Nature Of the Beast: "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting


(The novel Tampa, and some of the related subject matter discussed in this review, is pretty NSFW.)

"A very guilty pleasure indeed. The heroine is an obsessed, masturbating, child-molesting, somewhat homicidal sexual sociopath. Think of a female Dexter but without the redeeming social value. And you'll be cheering for her every step of the way and eagerly awaiting a sequel."

In a very basic nutshell, this assessment, quoted from a Barnesandnoble.com customer review, manages to sum up the fascinating double standards that abound in Tampa, Alissa Nutting's debut novel, in addition to getting a few details drastically wrong. Nobody can read this novel and not feel guilty. It's narrated by a physically attractive young teacher with a sexual and psychological attraction to fourteen year-old boys. There are many extremely detailed sex scenes, rife with slang and clinical terminologies, and when the novel is on the cusp of one of these luridly detailed interactions, the reader is at least subconsciously eager to read what the teacher has in store for her student. But just as quickly, the reader has to blink and remind him/herself: the unfolding act is pedophilia and molestation, not an enjoyably raunchy interlude in a very good book. Tampa isn't a twisted Fifty Shades knockoff, it's an accomplished, scary novel by a very talented writer. While I had my own issues with the novel's ending, I came away with the belief that this really is one of the better novels of the summer. It reads very quickly, but is crafted with a terrific emphasis on the main character's mental problems. While it's based on research of actual crimes, it's not some tawdry, "ripped from the headlines" cash-in. And most importantly, it positively thrives on making the reader confront its many double standards and notions of the differences between male and female sexuality.

Celeste Price is blonde, taut, and married to a wealthy cop. She's beginning her first school year teaching English in a junior high school, but she's there for one reason: to pick the perfect male student to seduce and have sex with throughout the school year. Her criteria is meticulous for a variety of reasons, and she settles on a boy named Jack Patrick:

"But despite the pleasant view, I saw few real options. Goody-goodies like Frank would deny me, and the overly confident type would find it impossible not to brag. There was only Jack--my second choice, Trevor Bodin, had a vast assortment of imperfections; deciding between the two of them was like being asked to pick a dance partner and given the option of a trained choreographer or an epileptic with a wooden leg. Trevor was an artsy sort whose hair was a wiggish crop of curls. A pensive journaler, he'd already asked if I'd look at some of his poetry. Since he walked home from school and didn't have to rush to catch a bus, he often came up to talk books and writing with me after class. But he had a girlfriend; most of his poetry was devoted to professing his love for her--Abby Fischer in my second period, memorable for her chunk of dyed purple hair. Being the romantic type, if Trevor ever did stray, he'd undoubtedly confess to her minutes after the act, likely through a series of frantic text messages that peppered statements of regret with frown-faced emoticons. He also came off as clingy, which could prove to be downright toxic. Trevor seemed like the type who would be ever more demanding, who would accept nothing less than symbiosis (Nutting 53-54)."

Jack Patrick is attractive, not too socially awkward and not too gregarious, and Celeste learns that he lives with his father, who often comes home late from work. These realizations, like everything else in Celeste's life, are analyzed and mentioned solely in relation to how she can feed her addiction and desires. As she states, her marriage is a sham, and her husband's wealth fulfills every need except her sexual ones. She has no hobbies, no outside interests, and no goal except maintaining her appearances (physical and perceived) to indulge her desire for underage males. This puts a strain on her sex life at home, giving her husband only occasional moments of sexual release, with the unspoken realization that it's best (in her mind) to project to others that they have a fantastically happy marriage and sex life, even though this isn't the case. At first, I thought the easy comparison novel would be Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, with the roles reversed. However, Humbert Humbert's seduction of Dolores Haze, for all of its horrifying realizations and implications, is actually an absurd comedy and commentary on youth and desire. Celeste Price is no Humbert Humbert. She's a cold, manipulative criminal, with terrifying sociopath tendencies.

That's not to say that Tampa doesn't dive into sociological and cultural ideas. In a wonderful interview with the website Jezebel, Nutting states that her goal was to explore female sexuality. She says "I think female predators tend to be sexually objectified and obtain a sort of celebrity status. I can’t remember the specific names of a single male-teacher/female-student case that got national attention off the top of my head. It’s not sensationalized or sexualized in the same way." There's a fantastic double standard at play. The awful consensus that many people have is that sexual abuse of a boy isn't as bad as sexual abuse of a girl; in addition to being wrong, it's also a shameful, sexist mentality of our times. Nutting carefully shows that Jack is a child. His actions, from the initial seduction to the aftermath, are those of someone not in control of his sexuality or maturity.

"'That was the best sex of my life, Jack.' He smiled; his eyes bashfully dodged my own but his face held a definite glow of pride.
'Mine too,' he said, then realizing his own joke, began to giggle. Now that it was over, the lust no longer there to suppress his modesty, Jack seemed embarrassed of his body--he'd lifted his knees up to his chest.
I reached up into the front seat and turned the key, blasting a cool stream of air-conditioning back onto us, and looked at the clock. It felt like we'd been there for hours, but it had only been twenty minutes.
'Are you hungry? Do you want to go through a drive-through?' Jack nodded (Nutting 113)."


While looking online for reaction to Tampa, I stumbled upon an excerpt in, of all places, Cosmopolitan Magazine. The introduction to the excerpt (which details Celeste and Jack's first round of sex) is "This summer's baddest, buzziest novel—about a hot young teacher who seduces her student—has enough biting humor and sexually graphic detail to make our Cosmo editors blush. It's also a brilliant commentary on sex and society. Here's your sneak peek." There's no mention of Jack's age, and the snippet makes Tampa sound like a dirty, acceptable beach read. I can only imagine the outrage and backlash had this appeared in GQ or Esquire, with the book being about a grown man who seduces a fourteen year old girl. I highly doubt the editors of Cosmo had this in mind, but perhaps that's another layer to the double standard. In society, it's more or less accepted that a young man would want to have sex with his attractive teacher, therefore making the act "less scandalous" than the male teacher/female student dynamic. Elsewhere in her Jezebel interview, Nutting says:

"I do feel like there are rigid boundaries for sexually explicit female characters (and for females in society in general), and when you cross them or go beyond those prescribed confines people are quick to devalue the book. I think one of the reasons that Fifty Shades was able to be such a commercial hit with its female-driven sexual content is because it’s ultimately an extremely traditional love story. As a culture I’d say we’re most comfortable talking about female sex when it’s in the confines of romantic love.

There are very, very few sexually explicit books about female sexual predators, which is part of the reason I felt the need to write Tampa. There’s a way to write a novel about a female sexual predator that would be quite accepted—to do so the same way the issue is largely discussed in the national media: talk about the ways or reasons the woman herself is a victim (which we care about far less, if at all, when the offender is male), show her being contrite and ashamed, take the focus off the sex or belittle its harm and violence. But that all goes back to precisely the reason that it’s hard for us to see females as sexual predators with male victims in the first place in our society."

I've barely scratched the surface of Tampa's other elements. Celeste's marriage reaches a breaking point long before the cracks in her "relationship" with Jack surface; a tired, demoralized teacher at her school becomes an unexpected ally; and unexpected people, from Jack's father to another lover, appear to dangerously send Celeste's private world into chaos. For as much as she plans, she cannot account for these detours. Jack becomes more mature and demanding, and the reader can see how the sexual relationship is wearing on him. Again, Nutting pays very careful attention to even the smallest details. Nothing is gratuitous, and Nutting manages to illuminate even the smallest ideas and consequences.

"I tried having him wear his old Halloween costumes and sports equipment while I pleasured him--a favorite of mine was the now-too-small cup that had been part of his junior soccer uniform. It barely held him; his genitals spilled out from its edges, like a snake-in-the-can practical joke that had been halfheartedly pushed back inside after popping open.
But nothing seemed to nudge Jack back into the mode of abandon I was searching for. The problem, I soon realized, wasn't simply between us. The way Jack would flinch at the slightest noise when we were alone, the moments during sex when I'd open my eyes to find that Jack's gaze wasn't trained on me at all but on his closed bedroom door, make it clear he couldn't let the catastrophe of Buck finding us together go: it had left Jack with a post-traumatic stress disorder that was heartily interfering with my getting off (Nutting 176)."

I had some issues with some of Nutting's craft choices: Celeste is an English teacher, leading to some stretched metaphors between her situation and the novels being discussed in the classroom. Some of the events (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers) seem too dramatic, especially given how detailed Celeste is in her manipulations. The novel, for the most part, is chilling in its depiction of Celeste as a sociopath. Toward the end, the revelations and domino-effect actions veer the novel into summertime melodrama. As for the commentator I cited at the beginning of this piece, the reader should not be rooting for Celeste. She's not committing these acts for any greater good; she's a pedophile. And as she starts a new chapter of her life at the novel's end, there's no hope for a sequel. She's still very damaged and in need of psychiatric help. How anyone could view her as a cheer-worthy hero is beyond me.

But again, these are the questions raised by the novel, and it forces everyone to have, at the minimum, an internal conversation about how male and female sexuality and perversions are viewed. While these potential conversations can be hazy or downright uncomfortable, Nutting should be commended for putting them out there in the first place. She's a wonderful writer and, most importantly within the context of Tampa, fiercely honest about what goes on in certain places. Some will laugh, some experience dirty thrills, but overall, these discussions are needed. We still live in a heavily patriarchal society that is able to turn an eye to male sexual abuse. In a way, fiction can sometimes be the only way to trigger these discussions. Nutting isn't out to shock, but to say "This happens. How do we feel about this? And how can we change these expectations and gut reactions?"

Work Cited:
Nutting, Alissa. Tampa. Copyright 2013 by Alissa Nutting.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Nothing But the Sky: "The Avian Gospels" by Adam Novy


As I went into my reading of Adam Novy's The Avian Gospels, I had no idea what to expect. Recently reissued by Hobart as a single edition (after its 2010 publication as a two volume set), it was gifted to me by my friend Jeremy. At the 2011 AWP book fair, I happened to make a mental note when he bought himself the two editions, and I looked up Novy's novel online. I had a very basic understanding of the plot and virtually no knowledge of Novy as a person or as a writer. Seeing that it was published by one of my favorite lit journals/publishing houses, I figured it was worth the time, sight unseen. Without having read any other short fiction by Novy, and since the book has always been in at least semi-limited availability, I was able to dive into terrific reading sessions without any outside influences, unless you count some of my favorite writers and readers praising the work over the last few years. After reading the first few pages of The Avian Gospels, I was expecting a fairly standard plot infused with experimental and magical influences. While this held true, it turns into a complex package of many themes and unexpected turns. There are love stories. There is political drama and violence. There is an intentional muddling of place and time. Family relationships and identities are explored, questioned, and ripped apart. There are double-crosses and thriller sequences worthy of the "keeps you on the edge of your seat" cliche. Last but certainly not least, there is a heavy influence of religion as a personal and social construct, befitting the novel's tassel and black leather composition, making it resemble a bible (last week on the train, a passenger asked me if I was reading the Torah). As I'm fond of saying, these descriptions form a summary and not a spoiler. When I was finished, I was taken aback at how many ideas Novy was able to pack into the narrative without making it messy.

The Avian Gospels takes place in a truly strange world (there are mentions of Norway, Hungary, and Oklahoma being within the same area). A Swede named Zvominir, known as the Bird Man, loses his wife during childbirth; the son, Morgan, survives and is referred to as the Bird Boy. The father has the power to manipulate and control birds, and his son is also born with the same powers. Their land, a destitute place with mixed poverty and scores of abused Gypsies, is dominated by millions of birds.

"Seventeen years later came the strange and extravagant birds' nests, the heaps of sticks and bark and rocks like haystacks in the trees. Then the flicker of larks and sparrows, the profusion of mergansers, terns, auks, shorebirds, hummingbirds, ospreys, magpies, chickadees, blackbirds, bluebirds, orioles, buntings, grosbeaks, waxwings, warblers, mockingbirds, wrens, thrushes, juncos, coots, cuckoos, kingfishers, doves and owls, bending our branches and spattering the air with their songs as we pushed our baby strollers down the boulevards, we had so many children then, the cemeteries' tumult had gone silent. We had never given too much thought to birds until that Sunday on the Steps, when a pulsing flock of hoopoes blotted out the sun, a hundred thousand cardinals in the Square like a sea of dried blood. They overflowed our city in a day (Novy 18)."

The city is ruled by a despot named Judge Giggs. He lives with his family in opulence and controls the RedBlacks, a military/police force. When it's known that the birds can be controlled, Zvominir is "hired" to control the populations, even though he's often crassly mistaken for a Gypsy. The Judge's family is aware of his power: his son Mike, being trained as a RedBlack, is a dimwitted punk no better than the average high school bully. His youngest daughter, Katherine, is the most level headed, offended by her father's control and secretly attracted to Morgan. The family and political dynamics are dangerous, but oftentimes ludicrously silly. Even in the face of extremes, the novel's narrator is always ready with an aside or a random observation that lends an air of thoughtfulness to the destitution and power struggles.

"A group of RedBlacks stood guard by the high stone gate of the Giggs house, surrounded by thousands of giant and laconic birds of prey, confident and taut in their power, like the Judge himself. They may have chosen his house because of him, though perhaps we only think that to inject coherent themes into the nothing of the everything (Novy 37)."


The Bird Man and the Bird Boy perform elaborate shows with the birds, controlling them into shapes, performances, and, in some instances, weapons. When some of his favorite birds are killed, Morgan finds himself at odds with his father and part of a revolution. He teams up with a Gypsy girl named Jane, secretly engaging in acts of violence against the persecution. This leads to secrecy, defiance, a love triangle between himself, Katherine, and Jane, a murder, and escalating double crosses from people on both sides of the war. The violence depicted is brutal, but never gratuitous; there are so many passages when one expects Novy to unleash a firestorm of stomach-clenching details, but it never becomes as intense as expected. However, this makes the violence that much more intense. The scenes he does share are terrible, but only hints at what more is happening behind the camera, so to speak:

"Shrugging, the soldiers struck the Swedes with their gun-butts, wrestled them onto their stomachs and kicked them, emptied their pockets of lint, debris, rags, calling them Gypsies, pickpockets, thieves, accusing them of stealing, subversion, black magic, spells to dupe the charitable, well-meaning populace, stomping on their knees and their ankles and their softer parts as Zvominir begged for Morgan's life, even as the soldiers picked the boy up by his feet, dangling him upside down to shake loose any contraband he might've swiped as he trawled through the suburbs with their charitable millionaires so naive to a Gypsy beggar's wiles; tore off the rags of Morgan's shoes and searched them, ransacked his body and squeezed his prostate, and his father's...(Novy 57)."

There are a seemingly equal number of beautiful passages, too. Novy's descriptions of the bird shows are stunning, and he creates some of the most visually compelling imagery. Even as the novel progresses down darker paths, passages like the one below pop up, and they are truly awe-inspiring:

"Morgan used ring-billed gulls for Katherine's face, cardinals for freckles and chiaroscuro hawks, curlews for her hair--their red bending beaks broke the picture-plane, illustrating wind--eyes of green ducks and raven-colored pupils, the shadow of her nose a parallelogram of plovers, nightingales, and parakeets for pigment, every bird a spot within a massive field of color-clusters, which all made Katherine Giggs. We know he selected birds for their brilliance, a repertory company of colors. We would like to show you Katherine's face, but we can't see it for ourselves, a madman sought her portraits and destroyed them (Novy 214)."


So far, these passages are stressing the balance between magic and horror in The Avian Gospels, but in hindsight, Novy never makes anything as simple as it seems. The novel's heroes have terrible habits and impulses, and the villains are sometimes presented in a sympathetic light. For example, the Judge is a monster, but there are stories of a personal loss that don't absolve him from his tyranny, but at least add some complexity to his dominance. Morgan wants to do good, but he's prone to lashing out and alienating the people close to him. He's young and selfish, and sometimes unable to see the bigger picture. This personality forms the basis for what was probably my favorite line in the novel, assuming I had to pick one of many: "The only thing I care about is birds, Morgan said, I'm a patriot to nothing but the sky (Novy 233)." These dual natures snowball, and as the novel concludes, the rampage and unexpected actions and deaths are nothing short of biblical. The Avian Gospels has probably the most depressing, abrupt ending in contemporary fiction, but somehow, it's oddly fitting. Nobody is truly redeemed, and the aftermath of the aftermath, left to the imagination, is probably more staggering that was was presented in the pages.

Adam Novy is almost frighteningly talented. There are so many young writers who could attempt a novel like this and end up creating an overwrought melodrama. Novy, however, makes the themes explicit and lets the reader make his or her own judgement. There are countless moral dilemmas, but the author never shows his hand to subconsciously make the reader think one way or another. And in a way, The Avian Gospels rides on the strength of both its prose and the conflicts. There are many examples of nature vs. infrastructure, peace vs. violence, family vs. country, and the obvious life vs. death. Are Zvominir and Morgan prophets, or merely humans caught up in their singular ability to manipulate a force of nature? And, to keep the idea of opposites intact, I believe The Avian Gospels is a combination of classic and contemporary. Novy blends ideas as old as humanity with experimental flourishes that eliminate any true sense of time and space, and in doing so, has created a work that can illuminate and compare to so many events and struggles. This novel is ambitious in so many ways, but manages to be a rollicking adventure through these complex questions. I very highly recommend this to anyone who ever claims there's nothing out there to read.

Work Cited:
Novy, Adam. The Avian Gospels. Copyright 2010, 2013 by Adam Novy.