On the desktop before me as I set out to write this review are two volumes: specifically, the two parts of Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels. The designs are complementary: on one appears the title, Novy’s name, and about twenty birds; on the other, the birds have increased in number and, grouped together, resemble a particularly sinister cloud. That’ll be the last time I refer to the two books separately: for all intents and purposes, this is one long novel divided into two volumes, and while there’s some closure at the end of the first, it’s not going to slow any reader with some amount of emotional investment in the story being told.
The nature of that story, and how Novy tells it, is interesting — and occasionally frustrating. On the one hand, The Avian Gospels meets many of the criteria of dystopian science fiction: an ambiguous and shattered city, ruled by a dictator; the involvement of the paranormal — here, the ability of a father and son to psychically control the flocks of birds that have gathered around said city. (At times, The Avian Gospels would make an interesting double bill with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books.) At the same time, Novy sprinkles references throughout the novel that suggest a more self-aware level beyond the revolutions, denunciations, and abuses on display. There are specific references to the unlikely trifecta of James Ellroy, William Faulkner, and Oulipo; more generally, some of Novy’s use of specific words seems intentionally disjointed, recalling the rewritten syntax of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String.
Most significantly, there’s the novel’s setting. One one level, it’s a war-torn city abounding with refugees and street musicians. Given certain qualities — a seeming proximity to northern Europe, for one — I found myself picturing somewhere vaguely Balkan. Novy is admittedly cagier as to the specifics, and this city recalls any number of battered urban spaces; I suspect that every reader will picture a slightly different former warzone. Based on references scattered throughout the novel, however, this isn’t a city that posesses a rational location: it borders both Oklahoma and Hungary, with Angola not far off. Alternately: it borders a civil-war-torn African nation and a similarly stricken European one, and its closest American neighbor was home to a catastrophic act of domestic terrorism. It’s an interesting metaphor, but it’s also one that can distract: all of the theory at work here clashes with the very visceral story Novy is telling. A metaphoric geography can stimulate, but that same geography upends the relatively logical story being told.
The tension between Novy’s more experimental inclinations and the inherently compelling narrative at the center of The Avian Gospels does occasionally cause more friction than is necessary. The moments of dislocation that punctuate the novel — the location of its setting, the cultural status of ska in this world, the instances where certain words seem to have shuffled their meanings — are interesting on their own terms, but can become distracting as the novel’s sweep takes over. That story is fairly concise: a father and his teenage son, both with control over the minds of birds, fall into the middle of a conflict between the dictatorial judge ruling a city and the revolutionaries who oppose him. There’s madness and corruption and abundant betrayals, some shocking violence and some violence that, ultimately, feels inevitable.
Another interesting point of comparison for Novy’s novel is Adam Levin’s The Instructions. Novy, in fact, dedicated this novel to Levin, and the two books, while initially dissimilar, ultimately seem like very different ways of wrestling with similar themes: authority, faith, a revolution. What Novy is looking at here is the legacy of trauma, its propagation, and the yoking of the miraculous to the morally dubious. It’s a familiar story, rendered in terms that can freshly horrify. The father and son at the heart of this novel use their abilities to delight the city’s residents, putting on shows of spiraling birds reshaping themselves from clouds to forms literal and allegorical. Both sides of the city’s conflict seek to co-opt that power: some to stifle revolution, others to stoke it. There’s a strange parallel to the experience of the crowds watching the spirals of birds in the reading of this book: just as they are delighted by the uncanny, the reader may initially be drawn in by this book’s bold title and by the fact that the books themselves resemble tiny Bibles. What emerges here is less a blueprint for life than a cautionary tale where little is sacred; an ominous narrative where wonder, in the end, gives way to tragedy and a primal cry evoking horror.
About the author:
Tobias Carroll lives in Brooklyn. He writes about music and books (and sometimes the places where they overlap). His fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, 3:AM, Word Riot, Vol.1, and as part of Featherproof Books’ “Light Reading” series. He is presently working on REEL, a short novel.