Get Off Your Ass and Blow Shit Up

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The Avian Gospels is a strange, compelling parable about an authoritarian city-state, an underground resistance, and a plague of mysterious birds.

If providing readers with hope for the world is one of the great dishonesties of contemporary fiction, then Adam Novy is as honest as they come. Novy’s first novel, The Avian Gospels, is a cruel parable of waste and degeneration, set in a rough hybrid of the American Midwest and post-Kosovo Eastern Europe. Given in two volumes, and handsomely bound in red and gold, The Avian Gospels is a strange and unsentimental epic of a post-war city-state that wages war against its own population while struggling with a city-wide infestation of birds.

Our hero is Morgan, born at the end of an earlier war and raised by his father, Zvominir, an anxious and conservative immigrant. After seventeen years of peace and poverty, the birds arrive: “a hundred thousand cardinals in the Square like a sea of dried blood.” They flood the city, blocking the streets, drowning the sky, filling shops and houses. The gypsies, an immigrant population, think of them as miracles. To the suburban bourgeoisie, however, the birds are an irritant, a danger to business, something that needs to be shooed away.

But there’s something you should know: Morgan can control these birds with his mind. So, as it turns out, can Zvominir, though he keeps his miraculous talent a secret and urges his son to do the same. But Morgan, always rebellious, begins to manipulate the flocks of birds as street theater, guiding them into formation, creating living portraits and depictions of historical scenes. And, as his father feared, the state takes notice.

In these early pages, Novy introduces all the novel’s major characters: the city’s sadistic tyrant, the Judge, and his wife, Mrs. Giggs; the Judge’s idiot son, Mike, who chases Morgan around the city with his gang of bullies; and Mike’s sister, Katherine, who pines after Morgan from afar. Behind them, Novy’s city is sparse and barely detailed, full of generic mobs and crowds: “Bystanders knew he was the Bird Boy, and looked at him with fear.” So much for the outside world. And the inside world is given in equally broad strokes: “It won’t be long now, she thought. I’m scared, he thought. What was he going to do without her, she wondered.”

Adam Novy

Morgan’s firebrand politics soon emerge. “I want a revolution, I want justice,” he tells his father, after a violent meeting with the Judge’s family. As they walk home, they meet a band of RedBlacks, the city’s police-force, and are beaten nearly to death. This is one of many examples of institutional brutality in The Avian Gospels. The city, we learn, is like a camp: there is always the potential for the vicious RedBlacks to beat or kill gypsy or gypsy-like bodies.

As Morgan becomes more radical, he falls in love with Jane, a true insurgent. After Jane’s brother is killed, she plots to “overthrow the city.” At first Morgan helps her steal from supermarkets and department stores; eventually, Jane convinces him to help blow up buildings. In one night, she destroys a bank, an armory, and a doughnut shop. “I used to believe in pacifism,” Jane declares. “Now I believe in this.”

Jane and Morgan come to live, with the rest of the gypsies, in a network of underground tunnels. Like a more successful version of Germany’s Red Army Faction, she is soon using Morgan’s mythic abilities to inspire a citywide insurgency. Morgan, still performing for the public during the day, follows her lead in the evenings and urges other gypsies to mimic her violence: “Get off your ass and blow shit up.”

Novy zips through the plot. Over several exhausting pages, we follow Jane as she robs a department store; then we see Morgan declared the messiah of the gypsies; then, Morgan lies to Jane to appear more sexually experienced; consequently, Morgan and Jane almost break-up; and after everything, “they finally fucked.” At the end of this slim chapter, we see that Morgan has learned a lesson, “that he had friends, he had a girlfriend, and the family he hadn’t known he’d wanted.”

Oh boy. But this cliché, given the glorious mess of plot which lies behind it, is barely more than a joke, a code Novy playfully throws into the mix. Novy’s approach is consistently tweaked. Following the promise of his title, the novel begins with a soaring gospel, full of bathos: “[I]f you could witness His wondrous methods you surely would fizzle in awe, so decent and grand is He.” That rude, un-Biblical “fizzle” gives it away: while there might be lessons in The Avian Gospels, Novy isn’t giving us any lectures.

This is a recklessly inventive novel. At times, Novy’s careful artlessness can seem sloppy. When the Judge orders Zvominir to keep the birds from his property, the dialogue is rough, tin-eared:

You will come to my house, and do your birdshow for my daughter, on a trial basis. Make it rated G, keep her happy, and don’t piss off my wife if you can help it, I know I can’t. Keep in mind how hot I am to kill you. I live about an hour from the center of town.

This craftedly implausible dialogue may seem, to less sympathetic readers, like bad implausible dialogue—but given the horrors this book contains, the violence, the carefully paced plotting, and the strategic destruction of sentiment—it’s safe to say that Novy is in on the joke.

And yet, if there is a joke in these sections, a parody of seriousness, then it’s an open question how much Novy is laughing along. The Avian Gospels is a novel of bodies thrown around by power, and of the violent responses such power often compels. Sometimes, there is no possibility of peace. The police state Novy gives us is about as familiar a political organization as one finds in the 20th century, and the “terrorist” resistance which follows is no more or less brutal than any other. But as historically familiar as all this might seem, Novy has still written a cruel book—less about birds than about the simple failure of statehood. This is a strange, compelling, and relevant work of art.


Matt McGregor is from New Zealand, and is currently working, reading and writing in Albany, New York. More from this author →