Group Identity

It has become clear to me in The Avian Gospels that the identity of self is a main component of the text. However, this is complicated by the implications of the lack of personhood throughout the story. That is, no person’s identity exists without the influence of another power structure. But how can identity be created without single personhood?

It seems that personhood in The Avian Gospels refers to the plural persons, rather than singular person is. This is to say that the identity of one is, instead, the identity of a group. Identity is performed as a group dynamic in a way that it cannot be performed as a singular item. The RedBlacks, for example, are an identity as a whole, according to Novy. In order for the RedBlacks to function cohesively as their identity states, one must not stray from the group. The Tutor, for example, is slain due to his disobedience of the Judge. When Mike is unable to act like a “true” RedBlack, the novel descends into the disarray that litter the second book.

Even those who seem more singular as characters (Morgan, Katherine) are employed by one or more group identity. Katherine is tethered to the Giggs’ name, yet inexplicably connected with the Gypsys (or Norwegians). Her self does not fully exist without the influence and presence of the others. She finds herself unable to connect with the Gypsys due to her status, yet wishes to engage with them in a way that she does not with her “primary” identity (as a Giggs).

Gender Performance Imposed by the Giggs

The other day in class, we briefly brought up the idea of performance and its tie to identity and how identity is portrayed. We started thinking about Judith Butler’s essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” and the idea of gender as performance. I know these ideas are present in The Avian Gospels, but I wanted to delve into their role a little bit more. Does gender appear as a spectacle — as something acted — in this text? And how does this affect the characters and the way they interact with their surroundings? To me, the idea of gender as a display links to the discussions we’ve had about the cliches present in the early part of this text, and particularly with the characters of Katherine and Charlie. Katherine is the veritable archetype of a demure, submissive, and naive young female when we first meet her. Is this performed? She seems to reflect everything female. And because of this, we agreed, she seems to be cliched, with little true substance. Conversely, Charlie – as we’ve been learning — did not align with the masculine paradigm. He was quiet, sweet, and more inclined to dream and create art than engage with the acts of toughness and bravery that we seem to tie, always, to what it means to be a man. This changed because of his parents; they intervened to re-direct his actions, and sent him to war.

In fact, I’m interested in the idea that the Judge and Mrs. Giggs in fact are involved in catalyzing the “proper” performance of gender of their children. With Katherine, they coddle her and feed her false information about the world around her — so she is driven to naivete, to an innocence and weakness. And these are all traits that are often tied to the female figure. When certain events cause Katherine to break from her parents and gain awareness she diverges from this archetype and her actions no longer reflect strictly “female” qualities. And meanwhile, Mrs. Giggs begs her to stay inside, to stay safe, to stay quiet; in a way, she is rallying for Katherine to properly perform her gender. With Charlie, his natural tendencies swerve from “maleness” — the Judge, in particular, criticizes and commands him, so that outwardly his display might be more in line with his gender. Around Charlie, the Judge espouses honor, bravery, and strength — all qualities tied to the performance of the male gender. Considering the tension between each of these children and their parents, there is a noticeable discordance between the “ideal” performances (wholly male or female) that are touted by the Judge and Mrs. Giggs and the inherent tendencies, the true selves, of Katherine and Charlie.

Zvominir’s Transformation

In this section, we see Zvominir transform into the leader of the rebels, which seems to have been triggered by Morgan’s disappearance. Before Morgan’s departure, Zvominir was a bit of a pacifist, against the actions that Morgan and Jane were taking. After he forgives Jane, however, he slowly becomes more and more involved with the rebellion. He becomes unrecognizable, and reminiscent of another character in the book. “Zvominir reversed Jane’s philosophies of battle. She had tried obliterating RedBlack institutions, like banks, offices and military barracks, and had killed only soldiers when possible. Zvominir terrorized civilians, and targeted the very same people whose homes he de-birded, families who had known him for a year, who’d invited him to christenings and birthdays, whose family events he probably still attended. He also blew up grocery stores, knowing his own people had no food” (375). To me, this sounds like the Judge. The Judge and Zvominir have something in common: the both lost a child. Whether or not Charlie’s death caused the Judge to become the monster he is I can’t say, but I do know that it caused some sort of tailspin in him. Both characters have gone through the trauma of losing a child, and both characters became ruthless leaders.

Although I found Zvominir’s transformation to be surprising, it reminded me of another commentary on totalitarianism: Animal Farm. Napoleon becomes the leader of the farm by preaching equality, leads a revolution, and becomes a heartless dictator. Both characters became the thing which they set out to fight.

Aftermath of Doubt

At the conclusion of the book (Avast, spoilers lie ahead!) I found myself stunned and dismayed with the ending, and what it seems to suggest about human nature left unchecked at large scales. While I would not necessarily change it, I did find it an utterly bleak and dismal comment on what Adam Novy may be suggesting is the nature of power and the ultimate truth behind motivations in the human condition. I mean by this, that each of the characters in the book seems to have moved suddenly towards a partial, if not total reversal in the nature of their original goals and aims that they had at earlier points in the novel. Morgan: No longer worried so much of the revenge he would take on the RedBlacks for the death of his pets, but instead worried about the women in his life. And while I thought that the tutor’s corruption and descent into madness and murder over lust for Katherine was to be the most horrifying thing in this book for me, it is now Zvominir, who had for the earlier parts of the novel been fanatically focused upon protecting Morgan and giving up his power to others, who undergoes the most hideous transformation now, ultimately resulting in his actions causing the deaths of Ezekiel, The Judge, Katherine, and even his own son. I question if there is religious significance to the murder weapon (a pitchfork) in these scenes. The Judge, who had been depicted as an evil despot indulging in mass murder (which, he no doubt was) shifts marginally towards a sympathetic character before his death, and is tortured by Zvominir’s words to end his family line in a manner perhaps worse than the physical brutality he put others through. While we might argue that this is “just desserts” the writing humanizes him at his last moments.

I would now like to discuss the tremendous amount of doubt that I now feel is necessary for the book to be read with. I think the narrator, the untold “we”, is in fact the survivors of this calamity which has consumed the lives of every character in the book, save a handful. As far as I could tell, the only ones we have left standing are Zvominir and Jane (who’s last mention is her marriage to Ezekiel). Which of these two leaders is it then, who goes about creating the “gospel” that we have just finished reading?

I think that Jane is the orchestrator, or at least has a greater hand in the drafting of the book. Perhaps, driven mad by his filicide, Zvominir is ousted, or commits suicide. I still think it safe to say it is Jane, and not him, who writes or has this written. Regardless of his fate, I now wonder which parts of the book may or may not be grossly fabricated. For example, I wrote earlier in the blog about Billy’s death, and the inability for anyone to describe that it was loneliness that propelled his actions. Now, considering that Jane may be the author, I find I doubt that more than before. Perhaps Billy was vindictive in that moment, and his loneliness untrue? Maybe he was trying to mug them? If Jane had written the gospels, or narrated to her people (and her child, who also goes unmentioned for the rest of the book) then it might account for the books inability to describe the characters outside of  the flat, almost robotic decision making processes that they go through.

“Endings needed to be sad in these conditions, for readers craved reality. Now, there aren’t illusions of deliverance in our future: we know we are doomed, so we use stories to deceive. We need relief, at the conclusion of the day, and too much truth but drives us deep into our beds. So let the truth be adjusted.” – pg.420

A final note, is if a sequel were drafted for this book, how much would or would not change. I find it possible that excepting several gender roles, it would be possible for a theoretical sequel of this book, to be nearly the same as this book. A father/mother and son/daughter in the slums of a destroyed, war-torn country, with a evil, murderous despot ruling over them or ruling the lands above where they hide. The child possessing a secret power, and the mother/father desperate to protect them. (Although, in this case Jane’s secret power is arson and guerilla brilliance.)
So, are we left only with Novy suggesting that the world works in cycles of violence, with no hope for our original aims? And is it the achieving of the power we do not have that will twist our aims, as inevitably as the tides, or cultural revolution?

Chapter 65

In this chapter, we find Katherine discovering that the triage tent that she had set up alongside her soup kitchen was not actually doing anything but torturing Norwegians (formerly known as Gypsies). Eventually Katherine is able to sneak herself in and discover the atrocities that are being ordered by her father. Upon first reading, this chapter seems just another example of the Judge and the RedBlacks’ authority and their power and domination over the Norwegians, however, with some further thought, this chapter reveals to the reader an obvious weakness of the RedBlacks.

I have noticed in class that people have continued to distinguish those on the Norwegian’s side of the war going on in Avian Gospels as being “against power.” While this is correct in terms of their being against the Judge’s power, I would say that very few characters are actually “against power” in this novel, and that, in fact, every one is after power. But what this chapter is doing is revealing the RedBlacks’ near absolute loss of power. That these “doctors” immediately go into torturing every single person who walks into the triage tent, regardless of anything that differentiates each person from another – including knowledge that most may not have of Morgan – shows an obvious paranoia that the RedBlacks are developing. Before this chapter, there are multiple signs that the power of this unnamed country had shifted from the RedBlacks to the Norwegians/Gypsies, but it was not until chapter 65 that this power shift had reached its near completion.

Jane and Katherine

The other day in class, I believe there was a moment where the potential for comparison and contrast between Jane and Katherine was proposed for discussion. In chapter 65, Katherine escapes the triage tent and “[marches] with her prisoners to the front steps of the soup kitchen…with a gun and thirty hostages” (354), surprising and overpowering (outsmarting) the RedBlacks who were there for her. At this moment, she really seems a lot more like Jane than she did before. 

The two women are alike in the text because they’re both clever, smart, and strategic. Also, they surprise and frustrate the men whose lives they impact. Those men seem perplexed in the moments where these two women have profound effects on the situation in this text (such as when Jane is destroying the city and leading the Norwegians and when Katherine pulls of this trick in chapter 65).

However, I notice that the two characters are different in that Jane is more destructive and blunt (although it might be important to recognize that out-right destruction was not her intent when we first met her), while Katherine is more subtly manipulative. This instance in chapter 65, though, demonstrates that Katherine becomes more assertive as the novel progresses. Finally, it’s interesting how differently the characters are received by the people around them. The Norwegians seem accepting of Katherine’s help, but they turn against Jane. Also, Mike even comes to express his love for Katherine as he is about to be tortured. Interestingly (maybe), Zvominir doesn’t like Jane or Katherine. 

What came first?

Changes are starting to occur quite rapidly within The Avian Gospels, and as I try to keep up with all of them I have found myself losing or forgetting the causes of some of these changes. Zvominir has stepped out of the background and is now trying to rise above Jane – but why? He does not agree with Jane’s anti-confrontational attitude and doesn’t like her telling him what to do, so there is an answer. However this leads me to reach back and ask why he even joined her in the first place. For Morgan? For himself (at this point it seems like it is more for himself)? Why would Jane want Morgan’s father working with her, since she knows he lets himself get stepped on by the RedBlacks? All of these questions for only these two characters. Never mind the ones I have about Katherine, Mike, the Judge, Morgan, the RedBlacks, and the narrator(s). What caused all of the changes in those characters? Well, based on the the beginning of the novel when we are introduced to the infinite bird population I would say the bird invasion is what caused all of these chain reactions and “allowed” these characters to end up how they are, and ultimately continue to change them. 

One problem with this: what caused the bird invasion? This mysterious war with Hungary continues to surface, and the narrator continues to hint at an event that came before the birds. So where does it actually all start, and can we pinpoint a starting point? In his discussion with us, Novy mentioned cataclysm, and how we are surrounded by events that set off further events or changes to people and place. I think he is using a cataclysmal setup to show us how out of hand things can get, and he speeds up time at the end of the novel to show that changes can not only happen at slow paces and over longer periods of time, but at faster rates and with more chaos.