The Avian Gospels is the best rehacked, rehashed, and familiar story I’ve ever read. The design of the book mimics the gold edged, thin papered gospel-in-your-pocket, and the story reads as something from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John prior to heavy editing. Many a modern text will take you from ancient myth to roadside attraction in the same paragraph or page: think Pynchon, Gaiman or Danielewski, but none write this post-modern style as whole-hearted and seamless as Adam Novy, none of those authors offer more personally touching, and yet such easily digested, novel writing.The modernism here seamlessly echoes the ancient with a graceful, understated effect which grants Novy’s humour and intelligence their proper place.
Novy writes The Avian Gospels with a simplicity that smacks of genius in league or beyond the amazingly complicated (and beautiful) pages of the aforementioned Pynchon or Danielewski. Despite my emphasis on sweet and simple I swear I detect the odor of Rilke and Hugo,the Pixies, the Stones, Shakespeare and maybe an obscure Spanish nationalist from the Franco days (maybe not, maybe the French film with the Spanish name). Maybe I’m imagining things and it doesn’t matter anyway. You don’t have to recognize any influence or reference to wholly enjoy this work: it’s two most prominent features are it’s understated depth and it’s accessibility. The well-balanced acts of cast and plot creates a volume that grounds you inside the story, eating out of the narrator’s hand with no question.
I had to read the book twice to write this because of the pure, lost enjoyment I first experienced with the books. Novy works you into an attachment all novel readers look for- a hallmark of books you will loathe finishing- but the balancing I mentioned earlier: the invisible, dirty work of authors, won’t give too much of anything. Novy grabs you just enough with no grandiose gestures to woo you, although now that I mention it, the lack of depth in attachment may also be a side effect of people always dying. Indeed several important characters are already dead or dying when we arrive:
“But we do not weep at your untimely death, Swede; you who were unchained from your body and freed, as from an Egypt of the soul. It is we who are doomed, and you who are released…”
Like many a sacred text this one begins with death- the isolated, wasteful death of reality. And like all good religious stories death occurs in many shades here:
“Fuck that, let me fight, Morgan said. Birds absorbed the bullets fired at the doorway, an overture of massacre prefiguring the Swedes’, thought Zvominir, who felt the death of every bird as a tremor in his chest. Zvominir tore his shirt off, and pressed on Morgan’s wound with it. Aiieee! Cried Morgan, What did you do that for? I’m trying to save your life. Find a way to do it that doesn’t hurt.”
Morgan is a typical boy in this town, the son of classless refugees lumped in with the oppressed gypsies- though his father Zvominir swears that they are Swedes- and living in the ghetto of an unnamed city with it’s neighbors of Oklahoma and Hungary. The father silently fears that his son will inherit his bird curse, and Morgan does discover his own talent with birds, who are also a kind of invader inundating the unnamed city. The upper class employs the father and son duo to rescue their sanity by getting the birds to leave, and the Gypsies begin to sanctify the boy.
The city is ruled by The Judge with martial law and everyday tyranny. The leader has already lost a son in the most recent war, and the second son, Mike, just wants to be a musician, but Mike is bad at music. Mike and his sister Katherine, their mother, and the Judge live in luxury in the best remains of the city with it’s bird plague from above and ghettos full of gypsies below:
“Katherine’s father, Charles Giggs senior, was our ruler. We called him the Judge, because he liked the name, and whatever he liked, we liked. The Judge enforced his will with methods we prefer not to disclose at this time. Just be glad you never met him. The Giggs clan was old, rich, sad. They had ruled for many generations.”
In this story there are three father-son relationships, one or two (depending on your view) pointedly earnest love stories, three sainted mothers, a blessed and doomed princess, plenty of good gone sad then mad, one revolutionary, and hordes of desperate, mean-spirited mobs. The two young men born into opposite, yet similar, positions are instinctual enemies: Mike is Morgan’s nemesis, and vice versa, first by childish instinct and then with purpose. The world is in such ruin that even the birds are refugees, rivers have run dry, and the potential savior is a teenager, reminding us of the fumbling nature of our fates:
“How could he have been so dumb as to be snared within a trap of his own making? He had never been so miserable; the courage he had showed when RedBlacks caught him in the tunnels offered him no solace, spoke no wisdom. Had he really been courageous, ever? He didn’t know; his sexual failure seemed to vaporize his history.”
Adam Novy puts you in a time and place where the earth and it’s cultures are all but obliterated. What the reader deduces is that historical context, and known geography has been forcefully reworked in people’s minds and forgotten through lives spent surviving. The narrator is our only witness and though he’s telling the story, he does it almost quietly, like he’s writing with a single flame in a hole beneath a once great, now unnamed city. We love our story, but question our storyteller.
In the end you’ll be at least a little surprised at how firmly the last of a tale can reframe much of the story you just read, or rather, the way a story can reshape itself dramatically in your mind depending on the ending. You probably thought you knew where this was going, and you were probably right, but you never actually believed it, definitely didn’t want it. Beyond the fantastically entertaining story the effects of Novy’s writing is subtle yet profound. The plot threads and archetypes here are relevant to all of our cultural ages, and this century is no different. The savior decides revolution is stupid, he only wants love and birds, while the prince of the city longs to be a musician. Things go upside down and back and forth and change face, but some things never really change: our story has been told in so many ways, and here is a refreshing, beautiful little book to prove it once again.
Darby Laine is a poet and reviewer currently living in southern Vermont.