by Keith Miller
“So the sad poet, winged now, lifts over the city, the white city in the sun by the sea, like a great gull, like the ghost of the sun itself” (Miller, 262).
Pico sets out for his home by the sea. And he keeps his wings, which I suppose makes sense; he’s received them because of his journey, so why would he lose them simply be leaving?
Fascinatingly and fittingly, his return journey takes a lot less time. With his wings, he’s able to cover the desert, the mountain, and the woods in a only a few days. Now that he’s transformed himself as a consequence of his previous travels, there’s no need to lumber through on foot.
This stage of the story evokes The Return stage in the Hero’s Journey; Pico has obtained the special item (i.e. his wings) that he was on a quest for after a renewal of himself.
Initially when he set out, I felt somewhat cheated that he got his wings and was going home. It wasn’t that I wanted him to suffer or not obtain what he wanted, but I felt that what he had gained was not his wings but the people and experiences he had. If anything, him returning home and finding a way to be with Sisi would have been more satisfactory than him getting wings and returning home.
Of course, this isn’t exactly how it enfolds.
When Pico arrives, he waits by the sea. But as dawn breaks, he sees that “[n]o longer to the myriad towers spring jagged and lovely into the air, the towers with their bright tiles and arches and bells and doves and wings” and is “terrified of “[t]he quiet air. Dawn in this city had always been loud with bells and the sounds of wings” (255). The winged people are gone.
Confounded, Pico flies to his old library where he reunites with Narya who tells him what she knows about what’s happened (it occurred before she even arrived).
But before she gets to that, Pico asks to hear about her journey which “with its own inventory of queer characters, marvelous conversations, terrors, reprieves” is definitely a story I want to hear. What did Narya experience and learn; who did she meet and what stories and emotions did they exchange? Seriously, I want to know.
And Pico, of course, tells her of his journey after he left the city and how he got his wings.
After he does, they have this exchange:
“‘Do you remember, Narya, telling me that we are all searching for some pristine story? One night, late, we were in my garret room, the snow was falling.’
‘The story we all remember but never find.’
‘I found the story, Narya. The Book of Flying.’
‘But just as each journey is unique, each story is unique. I have no wish for wings. The story I seek is another story. Perhaps it will arrive here from across the sea'” (258-9)
Can I just say I really do love Narya? Like she writes, she understands stories, she isn’t confounded by social and emotional cages (the way Solya was with Zarko). And here she perfectly expresses the notion that just like individual lives, stories are different and tailored to the individual living (or creating) them.
For we are stories — as we live, as we create them, as we communicate, as we strive. Stories are kinda part of us. And I love the sense that each individual has a story, just for them, that they seek. The trouble is finding that story and knowing when you do.
I will say that I wish some of the backstory on why some people have wings and others don’t had been explained or at least hinted at. It felt like a mere chance who had them or not (although maybe that was the idea). Can anyone gain wings? If they can, does that mean everyone can be born with wings?
But if that’s so, why are there allusions to conflict and resentment between winged and non-winged people? What is that history? I would really have liked some information — stories, legends, opinions — on the history and origin of winged people.
This leads into the twist, the part of Pico’s happy ending which he doesn’t get. For not only have the winged people left, but Sisi herself died by drowning herself in the sea. So rather than returning to Sisi, changed from his experiences and having lost his wings, he keeps his wings but loses her.
He leaves the city he thought would be his home and the place he thought he would finally have love. Which is really sad, regardless of whether I think his love for Sisi is anything more than a thematic fact, because the it was in part because of his love that he was able to obtain wings at all.
It ends with Pico flying across the sea alone and grieving.
I can’t help wondering if this is the more bitter of the two options. Pico’s gone through changes — even I can tell he’s changed from the person he was at the beginning — but he has no home and no one to share his new self with.
Furthermore, the reason he went out and changed has been snatched from under him. It’s like going on a quest only to return and discover your inspiration for your transformation is gone. So what’s left? He’s become someone new but he has nowhere to go forward. It just feels incredibly unfair.
It does make me wonder if there’s some implication here that once one changes deeply enough it makes it impossible to return to one’s old life. Is this a truer sense of how change works, rather than the Hero’s Journey where the newness is commingled into the world at the seeker’s return?
Overall, I adored the lyrical and metaphorical language. I loved a lot of the female characters, and I enjoyed the journey and transformation aspect of the story. Did I personally feel that Pico was not always the most likable protagonist and that his love for Sisi and his reasons for wanting wings were, occasionally, a little weak? Yes.
But I would say it was a good book, with interesting mini-stories and descriptions. Even if the ending felt sadder than I was expecting. (I may like open endings, but I may prefer them to have a little more hopeful tone).
“The leaves that had broken and shuttered the sun, the branches and trunks that had formed the corridors of a maze for him, are now a carpet of emerald and other greens, a green sea flowing beneath his wingbeats” (254).
Miller, Keith. The Book of Flying: A Novel. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2004. Print.