Small Beer Press had a warehouse sale last month, so I ordered two by the late avant-garde sci-fi writer Carol Emshwiller. I ordered Carmen Dog, which is what I take to be her most lauded novel, based on this blurb from Ursula Le Guin:
Carol is the most unappreciated great writer we’ve got. Carmen Dog ought to be a classic in the colleges by now . . . It’s so funny, and it’s so keen.
The pub’s blurb:
The debut title in our Peapod Classics line, Carol Emshwiller’s genre-jumping debut novel is a dangerous, sharp-eyed look at men, women, and the world we live in.
Everything is changing: women are turning into animals, and animals are turning into women. Pooch, a golden setter, is turning into a beautiful woman–although she still has some of her canine traits: she just can’t shuck that loyalty thing–and her former owner has turned into a snapping turtle. When the turtle tries to take a bite of her own baby, Pooch snatches the baby and runs. Meanwhile, there’s a dangerous wolverine on the loose, men are desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and Pooch discovers what she really wants: to sing Carmen.
I also ordered a story collection, Report to the Men’s Club. Small Beer’s blurb:
What if the world ended on your birthday — and no one came? What if your grandmother was a superhero? What if the orphan you were raising was a top-secret weapon, looked like Godzilla, and loved singing nursery rhymes? What if poet laureates fought to the death, in stadiums?
A day or two before they showed up, I found a copy of Emshwiller’s 2005 novel Mister Boots in the YA section of my local bookshop. I launched into it and I don’t think it necessarily reads as YA-as-genre, but it’s the kind of weird shit I would’ve loved to get a hold of as a sixteen year old. Blurb:
Bobby Lassiter has some important secrets—but it’s not as if anyone’s paying attention. It’s the middle of the Depression, and while Bobby’s mother and older sister knit all day to make money, Bobby explores the California desert around their home. That’s how Bobby finds Boots. He’s under their one half-dead tree, halfdead himself. Right away he’s a secret, too—a secret to be fed and clothed and taken care of, and even more of a secret because of what he can do. Sometimes Boots is a man. Sometimes he’s (really, truly) a horse. He and Bobby both know something about magic—and those who read this book will,
1. Snowpiercer, 2013, directed by Bong Joon Ho and produced by Park Chan Wook, is a sci-fi dystopian set on a mega-train, where the vestiges of humanity survive, protected from the new ice age outside. The plot involves the third-class passengers’ revolt against the elites who enjoy a privileged life at the head of the train. Etc.
2. You’ve seen this movie before, read this book before. You’ve played this video game.
3. Metropolis, Soylent Green, 12 Monkeys, Half-Life 2, The Time Machine, the MaddAddam trilogy, Children of Men, BioShock, Zardoz, Logan’s Run, Brave New World, Brazil, The City of Lost Children, Bad Dudes, Die Hard, The Polar Express, etc.
4. Points 2 and 3 are lazy writing, and Snowpiercer deserves better. Although the film is not especially original, it does have a clear point of view, its own aesthetics, and an engaging, energetic rhythm, powered by strong (if purposefully cartoonish) performances from its cast.
5. Snowpiercer is essentially structured like a video game. The heroes, a rebel alliance led by Chris Evans (Captain America, looking like The Edge from U2 for half the film), clear each train car—each game board—before moving on to the next challenge. An early standout scene involves a fight with a band of ninjas who for some reason ritually slaughter a fish before battle (the scene echoes the famous hammer hallway fight in Old Boy, a film directed by Snowpiercer producer Chan Wook Park).
6. The simple narrative structure of Snowpiercer allows the filmmakers to highlight the plot’s allegorical dimension. Highlight is the wrong verb: What I mean to say is hammer. Snowpiercer is not especially subtle in its critique of capitalism, with the engine that powers the train as a metaphor for capitalism itself—the engine determines the form of the train which in turn shapes the form of the society that must live in the train.
7. At Jacobin, Peter Frase offers a strong argument that the film challenges the entire system of capitalism and ultimately advocates transcendence of the system—not internal revolution.
8. While I think Frase’s essay offers a compelling analysis, I think that he simply wants the film to be better than it is. Snowpiercer, despite an apparent subversive streak, is still a Hollywoodish spectacle of violence and noise. It cannot transcend its own tropes (it can’t even revolutionize them). The vision of transcendence it offers is a rhetorical trick; not only that, it’s a stale trick, one that we can find at the end of any number of dystopian fictions: The exit door, the escape hatch, the way out.
Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels synthesizes dystopian themes with magical realism to tell the story of an unnamed city, in an unnamed time, afflicted by plagues of birds and bands of Gypsies. The novel is marvelous, surreal and very strange, disorienting in its tones and unnerving in its subjects; it’s at once a confounding allegory of torture, suppression, and rebellion, and at the same time a study in intrafamily relationships.
There are two families at the heart of The Avian Gospels. The aristocratic Giggs are led by the Judge, a ruthless patriarch who is both inheritor and perpetrator of endless war. Judge Giggs controls the city through fear, torture, and his fascist personal guard, the RedBlacks. While Judge Giggs seems to hold illimitable power in the city, it isn’t enough to retain the love or even respect of his family. His wife veers into a manic depressive breakdown, brought on in large part by the death of her elder son, who was killed during the last (foolish) war. His second son, Mike, is a loutish ne’er-do-well, a bully who fails to win his father’s approval. The Judge’s daughter Katherine is the apple of his eye, but as she matures in her adolescence, she begins to perceive the violent disconnect between her privileged life and the suppression and poverty forced on the city’s Gypsy population.
The other family (perhaps more of a duo, really) comprises Zvominir, an immigrant claiming to hail from Sweden, and his son Morgan, a petulant teen of an age with Katherine. Routinely beaten bloody by Mike Giggs and his RedBlack goons, Morgan develops a visceral hatred of the Judge’s regime, one that leads the lad to repeatedly (and rashly) lash out against the violent injustice he perceives around him. Zvominir and Morgan live in sad, motherless squalor, separated not only from the suburban greenzoned upper-class, but also from the Gypsies; Zvominir, who leads most of his life genuflecting to or cowering from power, will not even allow his son the joy of partaking in the Gypsies vibrant customs (like rowdy ska music and barbecues).
Most of all, Zvominir tries to contain his son’s bizarre power, a power that he shares with the boy: they can telepathically control the birds. This gift becomes both blessing and curse as the city is overrun by flocks of birds that block out the sun and make roads unnavigable. Zvominir, always kowtowing to power, agrees to employ his gift to “sweep” the city (particularly the area where the rich folks live) of the bird hordes; Morgan agrees to help, but only under the condition that he be allowed to show off his talent in the public square, where eager crowds (of Gypsies and suburbanites alike) gather to marvel at the spectacle of his “birdshows.” In time, Morgan begins writing dissent into his performances:
Birdshows were generally narrative, and featured a bird-made Morgan being chased through the streets by a soldier who was torn to bits by swans, though the swans were made of pigeons, and the soldier of flesh-colored plovers, his uniform of cardinals and crows. Swans would also be pursued through ghetto canyons by flying tigers made of orioles. These were his intentions for the birdshows, at any rate, but Zvominir would censor when the images betrayed but a hint of dangerous content, obscuring Morgan’s work with birdclouds, or worse, laughing babies made of birds. The audience found these touches psychedelic, and weren’t pacified so much as confused, so their passion turned to mumbles. The elder’s power over birds was superior, and Morgan couldn’t stop his father from suppressing the transgressive. It infuriated him.
Zvominir isn’t the only authority figure prone to parental censorship; as the poor old man tries to keep his son safe by “suppressing the transgressive,” the Judge in turn does all in his power to keep his precious daughter Katherine blind and ignorant to the violence and inequality that has purchased her material comfort. However, Katherine meets and becomes fascinated by Morgan, just as the young man’s rebellious attitude comes to find definition and ideology thanks to the Gypsy rebel Jane. Jane harnesses Morgan’s raw anger, turning him into the figurehead of a Gypsy resistance against the Judge’s terrible regime. She literally ushers him into the Gypsy underworld, a surreal setting of nightplants and black markets and ecstatic ska music and donkeys, sprawling in a labyrinthine network of caves and caverns and tunnels under the unnamed city. From this subterranean site, Jane becomes mastermind of a terrorist plot to overthrow the fascist Judge:
They—we—were helpless, and we knew it. She would do to us what Hungary had done, but with stealth; this terror stuff is easy, she mused. Who needs armies? She was poor, and lived in sewers, so nothing could be taken but her life, while we had homes, jobs, children, hopes, dreams and possessions we adored, which all gave meaning to our lives. There was no end to that of which she could deprive us. Our privilege made us vulnerable.
Now seems as reasonable a time as any to remark upon the narrator of The Avian Gospels, as its pronouns color much of the passage I just cited. A first-person plural “we” tells the story, a “we” whose contours and guts alike become more evident as the book unfolds. Much of the joy (and bewilderment and occasional frustration) I felt reading The Avian Gospels came from puzzling out just who this “we” is. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that, like the collective first plural person who narrates, say, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” the narrator is part and parcel of the story—is the story, perhaps—and that Novy’s dystopian vision is realized not just in the book’s content, but also in the telling of that content. Calling the narrator unreliable is beside the point; the narrator is the ideology itself that Novy critiques. Rebel Jane provides a very real ideological anesthesia to the narrator’s methods, the Judge’s power, and Morgan’s artistic ambitions:
. . . Jane felt suspicious of beauty, which trafficked in desire, not in justice, and left you lonelier and sadder. It made you feel worse in the guise of feeling better, and left you hungry for more beauty. Further. It enfeebled you politically, by pointing at some hypothetical catharsis, a transcendence that could not be achieved, for who could really say they had communed with a non-religious paradise of aesthetics? The beauty effect: a crescendo of nothing. Beauty distracted from things that were important—the rights of disadvantaged people—in the name of something it claimed was more important, and which didn’t actually exist. It was a cognitive conspiracy, a con that disempowered.
If Jane seems a bit shrewish—and what zealot isn’t?—it’s worth pointing out that her ideas might be the novel’s thesis, a thesis ironically couched in the very beauty that Jane would make us wary of. She’s the cold conscience in a book filled with passions. And she’s a terrorist.
While The Avian Gospels surpasses any allegorical schema we might try to impose upon it, it’s still very much a response to America’s post-9/11 zeitgeist. Novy’s Judge is a figure of malevolence glossed in benevolence. If he’s a sicko who takes dull delight in torturing Gypsies in his Boom Boom Room, he’s also a family man with problems that most of us can relate to. He’s an authoritarian who maintains order in a fractured society through violence and suppression—but he delivers what the suburban greenzoners want from a leader. So what if security comes at the expense of justice, and on the backs of a displaced population to boot?
The Gypsies, refugees from countless wars afflicting the world of The Avian Gospels, aren’t the only displaced persons in the narrative. Novy displaces the readers as well. The Avian Gospels erupts with uncanny moments where the material of our recognizable world overlaps with the crumbled reality of the narrative. Social structures, attitudes, cultural norms and ideals—these remain, more or less. But how to puzzle out a world where China, Bolivia, Angloa, and Oklahoma are among the nations that surround the unnamed city? Or where technology has regressed to the point that the automobile is a thing of the past? (Guns remain). And, uh, the birds, of course.
Novy’s dystopian novel skews more fantasy (or, more properly, magical realism) than sci-fi, but it’s the novel’s strange, shifting tones that most likely will paradoxically estrange and engage most readers. There’s a violent zaniness to The Avian Gospels, but the zaniness is never tinted with even a hint of whimsy. The first-person plural “we” that narrates the text juxtaposes dense, poetic images against the teenspeak of the street. At times, the narrator staggers into a mordant lament, only to retreat into cruel, blackly ironic prose. The effect is disorienting and compelling. Novy’s writing moves rhythmically with a complex energy that I’m faltering to describe. You should probably just read the book.
I’ve neglected thus far to comment on the actual physical books that comprise The Avian Gospels. They are beautiful, compact, oxblood volumes with gilded edges and bookmarks, reminiscent of Gideon bibles, I suppose, but more lovely. They’re also very small, the sort of thing that fits easily into a pocket or a purse. I love books like that.
The Avian Gospels deserves a place on the shelf (or in the pocket) of any fan of cult or dystopian novels. It’s a story about cyclical violence, power and powerlessness, and political and cultural repression. It’s also a story about family and parent-child relationships and what it means to love another person in the face of radical danger, a novel that foregrounds the very real stakes of rebellion, both Oedipal and political. It’s a strange book, one that offers little comfort to its readers and certainly proffers no simple answers. Deeply moving and highly original, I strongly recommend this book.