‘I’m from a suburb near Chicago called Northbrook,’ says Novy, 39, now living in Irvine, California. ‘It is everywhere and nowhere, which is probably why my book takes place in some imaginary city that could be anywhere.’ The ‘city’ that Novy creates is part sci-fi, part Gabriel Garcia Márquez, populated by a civilisation that is terrorised by an epidemic of birds. Below these people are a race of gypsies who are oppressed by the dominant race’s militant soldiers, bored and craving violence.
Into this world come a father and son, Zvoninir and Morgan, believed to be gypsies though claiming to be Swedes. Both share a unique talent: they can control birds. Thus the book’s initial setup: a civilisation attacked by an enemy it cannot destroy, hungering for a violent solution to its problem, is forced to put forth a diplomatic foot and enlist the help of the people it oppresses..
Through this plot, Novy suggests parallels to circumstances in America today. ‘One thing that interested me when I was writing was the feeling of being justified,’ he says. ‘After 9/11, our country thought it had the right to go and f*** up other countries, as though we had been dumped by a girl. It was as though we felt we had to find a girl who looked a little like the girl who had just dumped us, who we in turn could dump or, in this case, invade and obliterate.’
The theme of terrorism is played out in both the back- and foreground of The Avian Gospels, and the critique of American foreign policy is palpable; yet as the book progresses, the story grows complicated. We meet the ruler of the fictional land, called The Judge, a tyrannical figure who, it transpires, has a family and a slew of problems all of his own. Morgan, meanwhile, falls in love with Jane, founder of a terrorist resistance movement, and finds himself caught between worlds. Other characters enter the fray and a surprisingly Shakespearean plot plays out, thick with revenge and politics.
Against such classical drama, the novel’s Biblical packaging – gilt page edges, faux-leather covers – may seem unusual. In fact, it was his publisher’s idea, but one that Novy says he was immediately taken with, not only for the play on the ‘Gospels’ of the title, but because it points readers back to the novel’s allegorical nature.
As a form, allegory is at its best when it both does and doesn’t correspond to the world as we know it; when you can see correlations, but the story isn’t defined by them. It’s literature’s way of being political without being predictable. Novy says he wanted The Avian Gospels ‘to read like a bogus social studies lesson told by somebody untrustworthy.’ It’s a terrible recipe for pedantry, but not bad at all for art. Martin Riker. The Avian Gospels books I and II are available at www.amazon.co.uk.