The Conference of the Birds

Publication Date: Sep 17, 2005

256 pp


List Price US $22.95
ISBN: 9781590511244

The resonant sequel to Meritocracy: A Love Story

It is the late ’70s in Manhattan and God is dead. A group of people come together to explore the void left behind. Neither Buddhist nor Sufi nor Hindu nor New Age, but rather New York mongrels of the spiritual, as brash and defiant as their chaotic, bankrupt city, they embark on what seems like a journey described in a 12th century Persian poem.

Among them are the shy and sweet-natured Bobby, a gifted cartoonist and the group’s mascot; Maisie the acid-tongued rich girl who is fighting a two-front war, against mental instability and Hodgkin’s disease; the narrator Louie, a very nearly accidental pilgrim torn between his friends and the purpose that has engulfed him; and the group’s austere leader Joe, a saint to some, a pervert to others.

Their impossible and youthful quest hurtles the group’s members towards a destiny they cannot even imagine. Is it oblivion they seek, or remembrance? As the dramatic climax of their journey envelops them, distinctions between internal and external, heart and mind, word and silence, all collapse, rendering the world an ambiguous and mysterious place.

Excerpt from The Conference of the Birds

The window is dirty. Soot has mottled it so that it resembles a topographical map of a region of hills. Rain has caused the soot to run in places, creating rivers or gullies. Raindrops themselves, bearers of the city’s detritus, have left faint pockmarks, as though long ago a war had been fought here. Shelling. Death. Verdun. The Western Front. One’s imagination could run wild. Don’t. Stop. Go back. Nothing wild here. Wild is the city, the world, the wind. Here is cultivation. Here is human possibility. Go back. Stop. Gently, so that even ”human possibility“ is stopped, so that even stopping is stopped.

The landscape of war is deposited on the window’s outside. On the pane’s inside, particles of dust and faint angular streaks where some window washer years ago used a dirty squeegee. Also, dapples of grease, like settling mist, as though grease has been in the air of the place.

I reach for a scrap of torn-up newspaper. I feel the air rustle against the insides of my fingers as I extend my arm. I feel my fingertips as they land, gentle as a mosquito on skin, on the pile of newsprint squares. My thumb and two fingers pinch the top sheet, which like something hypnotized slides into their grip. Gently, cautiously, they lift the single sheet. With any less pressure it would flutter away. My right arm reaches for the bottle of window cleaner. The solution is pale, diluted, watery. One doesn’t waste Windex just as one doesn’t waste newspaper. There’s no need. Need is elsewhere. Need is a poem, or need has no name. Stop. Gently. Go back.

1. What literary means does the author employ to bring the experience of being in the “group” close to the reader? Which of these are most successful?

2. Mystics have always held that their experience is inexpressible in words on paper. Do you believe this or not? Does the answer have any relevance to a reading of The Conference of the Birds?

3. Is The Conference of the Birds a cautionary tale? A hopeful tale?

4. Many readers say that they hate the character Joe. But why? What other feelings might one have for him? Is it his personality, or position, or our collective memory, or the events of the story, which most determine our feelings towards him? Is it possible, as the narrator seems to suggest, that Joe was both right about many things and wrong about many things, and does it matter?

5. Is Joe cold?

6. Is The Conference of the Birds emblematic of the 1970s? And even if it is, is it possible that many of the ideas and thoughts expressed in it are now widely dispersed, perhaps in diluted form, through the culture?

7. How can Bobby be explained? What is going on with Bobby?

8. What does one make of the notion of “spiritual evolution?” What does one make of the notion that every religion has exoteric and esoteric aspects, followers of its forms and rituals, and initiates?

9. Why are members of the group “mongrels of the spiritual?”

10. Have you or anyone you know been a part of a “group” akin to Joe’s? If so, how did it all come out? Or has it not “come out” yet?

11. What did the narrator learn, or gain, or lose, by his years in the “group?”

12. Is Maisie the most appealing character in The Conference of the Birds?

13. What part does The New Yorker magazine play in The Conference of the Birds?

14. The Conference of the Birds at first blush has a noticeably different style from Lewis’s other novels. Does that difference hold up on closer inspection? To the extent the style is different, how does it serve the book’s story, themes, and aspirations?

15. What can be said about the relationship between groups such as Joe’s and the larger culture?

16. What is the thematic role of The Conference of the Birds in the development of Lewis’s quartet?