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.
Novy, Adam. The Avian Gospels. Copyright 2010, 2013 by Adam Novy.