A Gypsy by Any Other Name is Something Entirely Different

What has struck me the most about The Avian Gospels is the way that Novy has used a completely different set of signifiers from that the reader (especially one from America) is used to using in their own lives. He does this by creating a country that is bordered by real countries – Hungary and China – that could not possibly border the same country, as well as countries that aren’t real countries – states like Oklahoma and Arizona. What does this do for the reader? As he discussed in our class last week, Novy has explained this book as a sort of response to the events – or more appropriately, the aftermath – of 9/11 where things that should have produced meaning or increased the meaningfulness of other things lost their meanings. For a novel that is a response to 9/11, it does not go the typical route of centering a story around the actual event and pumping it full of clichés to invoke meaning and engender false empathy in its audience for Tom Hanks’ on-screen son, Novy has pumped his novel full of clichés that work to desensitize and remove meaning from his plot.


An example of this meaninglessness is the way that, as mentioned before, Novy assigns names to things that signify things in the reader’s own reality that do not match at all what they signify in Gospels’ world – such as his use of the word “gypsy.” We are introduced to the Judge, who is the ruler of this unnamed country, and this unnamed country hates this group of people called “gypsies.” The reader thus generates the image of dark-skinned, dark-haired, travelling thieves that are used in a plethora of film and literature. But then, we are given a description of The Avian Gospels’ gypsies and find that they are fair-haired, light-skinned, and freckled, which, for the reader’s own reality, is a description for the Irish. Without thinking about if Novy is suggesting anything with this pairing, the reader then begins to assume that these gypsies are much different looking than those “rightful” citizens of the unnamed country. But then: “Morgan used ring-billed gulls for Katherine’s face, cardinals for freckles and chiaroscuro hawks, curlews for her hair – their red bending beaks broke the picture-plane, illustrating wind – eyes of green ducks and raven-colored pupils” (Novy 214). How does Novy describe Katherine, the daughter of Judge Giggs? She’s described as looking exactly like the gypsies that her country hates. And again, later on when the tutor is mugged and dressed in gypsy clothes and no one is able to recognize that it is him, despite the fact that his face was untouched, and the only thing changed was his clothes. Again, Novy is suggesting the meaninglessness of names and, perhaps, the uselessness of their weight in power in The Avian Gospels.


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