The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

ISBN: 978 1 4088 1603 5
The Song Of Achilles is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. The novel covers the familiar ground of Achilles semi-divine origins, his friendship with Patroclus, his training with Chiron, and his role in the eventual siege of Troy. Those who are familiar with the myth may question the point of its retelling.

The answer may be found in the nature of myth. Originating in an era where literacy was a minority pursuit, oral retellings of a tale by story tellers were common place. While we may associate these tales with surviving versions which are familiar to us, such as the version which appears in Homer’s Iliad, these tales were broadly told by multiple tellers.

As such multiple versions of popular myths existed simultaneously, definitive versions being a later product of history. Mythical stories tend to feature archetypical characters and scenarios which provided a scaffold for story tellers to weave their craft around. This accounts for the durable structure of myth which can incorporate multiple minor alterations to its tapestry without losing the core of the story.

So how has Miller fared in retelling a tale told previously by giants such as Homer and Plato? Quite well I’m pleased to report. Instead of taking on these masters in their home territory, the epic, Miller has moved arenas to the very modern realm of the personal and individual. Characters found in preserved versions of the Achilles myth are presented in a more nuanced form derived from realist tradition with added contemporary concerns such as individual psychology and personal motivation not present in ancient versions.

This is particularly evident in the portrayal of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In earlier versions of the myth we are assured of these men’s friendship and take it as a given without been told much about the reasons behind it. This has left the nature of their relationship open for interpretation according to the tastes and needs of the storyteller. Miller has chosen to portray it primarily as a romance and skilfully depicts the maturation of their relationship as it develops from childhood companions to adult lovers, which fully accounts for their devotion to each other.

Despite Achilles’ starring role in the title the tale is told from the perspective of Patroclus which helps to accentuate the human rather than divine aspects of the tale. We observe the deeds of the demi-god Achilles from a very specific human perspective. This alters the dynamic of the tale radically, instead of being passive observers of a hero and his deeds we feel concern about for Achilles’ wellbeing and fret for his safety along with Patroclus. I felt that for the author humanity is the real star of the show, its complexity and contradictions being of more interest to her than the two dimensional traits of godhood. There is evidence for this in the novels focus on Patroclus, and the fact that most of Achilles divine deeds and interactions take place off page whereas his more human moments are what drive the narrative.

The author’s realistic treatment extends to the more fantastical characters also. Chiron the centaur, instructor of Achilles and Patroclus, came alive for me in a way I haven’t often experienced with fantastical characters. The fact that he was a human torso attached to a horse seemed the most natural thing in the world. This rendering of the fantastic as natural had such an effect on me that when Scamander, a river god, suddenly emerged to block Achilles approach of Troy it seemed like an ordinary and logical thing to happen.

The only character to retain some of the remoteness of godhood is Achilles’ imposing mother, the sea nymph Thetis. Thetis enters and leaves the story as she pleases exuding a terrifying inhuman presence as she does so. Yet ultimately her concerns are for her son’s future, maternal instincts being common to both mortals and goddesses. Thetis is horrified at her sons coupling with Patroclus, feeling a mortal unworthy of her demi-god son she shows that status anxiety is not an exclusively human trait.

Humour features throughout the book as well. Two moments in particular stood out for me as particularly amusing, the first being Chiron’s sceptical appraisal of a lavish jacket designed for a horse and the second a comment made by Odysseus to Pyrrhus about historical memory and posterity. The humour serves the novel well and helps lighten the mood in a story concerned with conflict and fate.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was surprised by my reaction to it. I had initially approached it with some scepticism given that I knew the broad outline of the plot already and expected to this to temper my enjoyment of the novel. Yet despite initial hesitation I found the book impossible to put down and nothing less than compelling. So whether you are a seasoned scholar of ancient Greek myth, a greenhorn looking for a way into these stories, or just somebody looking for a decent read, pick up The Song Of Achilles, you won’t regret it.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

ISBN: 978 0 85786 452 9

Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk tells the story of Alpha Squadron, recently returned from Iraq to partake in a whirlwind two-week thanksgiving propaganda tour. Set around 2005 it focuses briefly on the battlefield, preferring instead to examine the effect of war on the domestic populace of the aggressor.

We experience the story through the eyes of the titles Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Alpha squadron member whose virginity is intact. Billy’s experience as a warrior is at odds with his lack of experience with the opposite sex. Apparently in Iraq there are none of the charitable young ladies, portrayed so frequently in movies about the Vietnam conflict, who “love you long time”.

Footage of a skirmish between Alpha squadron and some local insurgents has been captured by an embedded journalist and broadcast by the media. That the skirmish itself was of little strategic consequence or that a soldier died whilst one lost his legs is of no consequence to a narrative hungry media and public.

The American people, eager for stories of heroism and sacrifice to distract from the grubbier aspects of the invasion, clutch Alpha squadron closely to their bosom and in the process almost suffocate them. People from all backgrounds want something from Alpha squadron. As Billy Lynn puts it, “There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need. That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year”.

The America which Alpha Squadron are subjected to is a grotesque carnival of self-celebration where spectacle serves to stave off boredom and its consequence; introspection. While the battered and bereaved members of Alpha squadron have been disabused of the romance of war through  experiencing it first hand, no such correctives are possible for the stay at home armchair warriors whose only experiences of war come through the media. As they travel from stage-managed event to stage-managed event in key election states Alpha squadron realise that people are interested in the symbols that they have become rather than the people they are.

Inconvenient aspects of their reality are steamrollered over to make their story fit into a neat simplistic package which eschews complexity in favour of easy to digest clichéd notions of military heroism. That Alpha squadron are actually a company is of little interest to the media who prefer the catchier sobriquet, details be damned. The returned heroes are flanked by various media figures at all times and a recurring joke involves the casting of the Alpha squadron movie with Hillary Swank tipped for the role of Billy Lynn. Much of the novel takes place in this vein moving from the tragic to the absurd without stopping to take a breath.

The culmination of the novel which takes place at the super bowl is a masterpiece in representing the politics and spectacle of post modernity in all its glory. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time at the insensitivity of placing shell-shocked soldiers, who must return to Iraq when the party is over, at the centre of a bombastic firework display. At the Super bowl the tribal intensity of American nationalism is laid bare in a parade of superabundance. Everything is excessive from the jumbotron screens to the freakishly large mass of the American football players. It is easy to see where the author’s politics lie and that is the novels greatest flaw. It’s not that I disagree with the authors political beliefs, In fact based on the evidence found in the novel the opposite is probably the case.

The problem is that Fountain often clumsily shoehorns dialogue into characters mouth which just doesn’t convince. This is especially the case with the protagonist Billy Lynn who at nineteen years old sounds like a fifty year old professor of ethics. His insights are too well-formed for a character of his age and inexperience. Perhaps most unconvincing is his reaction to a sex act he receives from a stripper. I think the author has forgotten what it is to be 19. This could have ruined the novel for me, and undoubtedly will for many, had I not found consolation in Fountain’s dark sense of humour and knack for portraying a clamouring hungry mob. If you turn a blind eye to the novels flaws which threaten its verisimilitude of the novel Billy Lynn’s long half time walk is an enjoyable read which realises the comic in the tragic and vice versa.

Canada by Richard Ford

ISBN: 978 0 7475 9860 2

Canada by Richard Ford tells the story of the Parsons family, mother Neeva, father Bev and their twin fifteen year olds, sister Berner and brother Dell. The story is narrated by Dell the younger twin who recounts his American childhood in the late 1950’s from the perspective of his adult self in the present day. This approach to narration has the advantage of tempering the observations of childhood with the hard won insights of adult life.

The father Bev was a U.S air force pilot and with that occupation came a nomadic life for the Parsons family. The family have long moved from place to place never really settling until they reach the town Great Falls in Montana. When Bev is discharged from the air force for a misdemeanour it seems that the Parson family will settle down in this sleepy small town. Young Dell anticipates the trappings of settled life such as school, peers and extracurricular activities with enthusiasm and begins to plan a future, in so far as boys do, involving bee keeping. In fiction much as in life plans rarely work out as expected.

A bank robbery committed by the parents in a moment of desperation irrevocably alters the family members lives. We are made immediately aware of this impending incident in the novels opening sentences, “First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” As well as being a useful way of grabbing the reader’s attention Ford’s opening line puts us in the position of his young protagonist Dell. Dell inhabits the disempowered world of childhood where one is totally dependent on parents.

Dell constantly looks for clues or signs from his parents about the state of their relationship. As the adult Dell tells us, “Children know normal better than anyone”. He intuits that the state of his parents marriage is somehow bound up with his future. Due to his youth and the nature of parent child interactions his interpretations rely on fragmentary moments and overheard discussions from which he must draw his conclusions. Aware of the approaching robbery and murders mentioned in the opening sentence we the reader also scrutinise his parents looking for the cracks, seams and dysfunction which will eventually manifest in calamity.

The sense of uncertainty which hangs around his parents marriage seems to emanate from their very different personalities. Dells’ father, Bev, is an Alabama native whose air force career has landed him far from home. His Southern background sets him apart from those around him in Montana. Bev relishes his incidental individuality not knowing such conspicuousness will eventually contribute to his downfall. Bev is a man of a mildly left wing persuasion on matters such as race and government which stems from his time in the army. Such values not often associated with the USA’s south seem to mark him out as not quite belonging, even in his place of origin. He is a charming and good intentioned man but lacks any real substance. His desire to be liked by everyone around him is his Achilles heel. Of all of Ford’s characters in Canada, I found him the most interesting.

His wife Neeva is marked as an outsider by her attitude. She has an aloof nature due to her pretensions about herself as being culturally superior to her fellow inhabitants of Montana which stems from her metropolitan immigrant parents. Her views about Montana are best summed up in her sentence, “it’s just cows and wheat out here… there’s no real organised society”.  Because of her sense of cultural superiority she keeps herself apart from the surrounding community, a policy which she tries to encourage in her children. Further to her attitude, her Jewish heritage physically marks her as different from those around her.

We learn that Neeva and Bev ended up married as the result of an unplanned pregnancy and this seems to have set the tone for their mismatched relationship. Neeva’s parents disapprove of Bev feeling she should have married someone more appropriate to their imagined social station such as a college professor; as such her contact with them dwindles. Without extended family or community both Bev and Neeva must depend on each other. Unfortunately their mismatched natures make disaster seemingly inevitable.

As often occurs in Ford novels the topic of fathers and how they inevitably disappoint their son’s crops up. In Canada we find two examples of this. The two father figures are Dells biological father Bev and his Canadian benefactor Arthur Reminger. Both men seem to suffer from a similar condition of insubstantiality that is revealed to be their fatal flaw. In Bev’s case this existential lack is relatively benign. Although Bev eventually ends up committing a robbery and in the process destroying his family, we can at least say he seemed a loving father.

We may also observe that his act of robbery seems more akin to a child’s game of cops and robbers than a work of vicious criminality. Arthur Reminger is a different story. The absence within him is darker and more sinister than Bev’s. Whilst reading about the dapper and louche Reminger I found myself thinking of him as a kind of “bad Gatsby”. Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby he tries to appear to others and himself as how he wishes he was rather than how he is, to compensate for the void he feels at his core. Both Bev and Reminger want the same thing from Dell. When the adult Dell explains about Reminger, “he needed me to do what sons do for their fathers: bear witness that they’re substantial, that they’re not hollow, not ringing absences. That they count for something when little else does” he could equally be talking about Bev.

Insubstantiality is certainly not a problem with Ford’s novel Canada. Structurally the novel is split into three untitled sections. The first features the build up to and committing of the bungled robbery. Part two shows Dells flight to Canada to evade social services and the life he leads there. The third section looks at the aftermath of these events and how they have affected the adult Dell and his sister.  In each section we are introduced to an interesting array of characters and situations. I was worried that the pace of the story would slacken after the robbery was committed but thankfully these fears were unfounded as my interest was held to the end.  Fords masterful use of language and perceptive insights provide an illuminating reading experience provided by a mature writer at the height of his powers. I have no hesitation in describing Canada as a potential classic of modern literature.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

ISBN# 0143112120

Released in 2006 to much fanfare and hype Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a divisive book. Despite finding its way onto the New York Times 10 best books of the year 2006 and receiving comparisons to literary leviathans such as Nabokov from some critics, dissenting voices are not difficult to find in literary pages and blogs the world over. Critics have focused on the large advance paid by Viking Penguin for a debut novel, resulting in much dark muttering about the author’s good looks being a major contributing factor to her success.

Here I would like to state that I have no problem with authors being well compensated for their endeavours ditto for them being photogenic. Criticisms which focused on Pessl’s good looks seem to me have an air of pettiness not to mention sexism about them. So what about the book itself? As it stands we have reviews on one side singing Pessl’s praises and comparing her debut novel with maestros of the medium and on the other, condemnations which accuse her of being a writer of limited talent who like a siren has lured unsuspecting publishers and readers into her thrall. Where does the truth lie? As is the case in many of these situations we may find the answer somewhere in the middle.

Pessl’s debut novel is about a young lady of much reading but little experience called Blue Van de Meer. Blue is undergoing the awkward transition from childhood to the adult world and like her literary forbear, Holden Caulfield, will come to realise that the world of the alleged grownups is not as neat and tidy as it may seem on the surface. Matters are not helped by Blue’s hero worship of her overbearing father, Gareth Van Meer, an elitist professor and the nomadic lifestyle he has chosen for both of them. The death of Blue’s mother many years earlier has contributed the claustrophobia of this father daughter relationship. Due to constantly moving from town, Blue has no real friends and has taken solace in literature.

Arriving in Stockton, Blue has entered her senior year of high school attending St.Gallways school. Here she gets involved with the in crowd, a bunch of wealthy archetypes who are referred to as the Blue Bloods. This group comprises of moody Milton who is a high school rebel, flamboyant, yes that does mean gay, Nigel, alpha blonde Jade, pseudo hippy Leulah, and matinee idol-a-like Charles. The centre which this group of unpleasant privileged brats orbits around is film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. Hannah’s eventual death prefigures the novel as we are told of it on the opening page.

Hannah has taken an interest in these students beyond the confines of academia and regularly has social evenings with this exclusive group of students in the confines of her bohemian abode. Hannah takes a particular interest in Blue for reasons that are initially unclear. Under Hannah’s aegis Blue becomes an official member of this angst ridden milieu. What promises to be a fairly standard teenage acceptance narrative pulls the rug from underneath us at page about three quarters into the novel and suddenly and unexpectedly a genre change takes place. Pessl executes this risky manoeuvre skilfully and what could have been a disaster in fact works quite well.

So where do the problems in the novel lie? For me they may be located in the protagonist Blue.  Due to her itinerant lifestyle Blue is a little socially underdeveloped. To compensate for this she navigates the world through a system of seemingly endless references to literature and cinema without really understanding much of what she encounters. Here the shadow of Dave Eggers looms large as Pessl decides to supply us with notations for each and every reference made by Blue in the book. And here we find the point where the critics divide depending on whether or not they think that kind of thing is a good idea or just a showy gimmick.

In my personal opinion this technique works well enough initially in terms of it seeming consistent with the character of Blue. But unfortunately as the book progressed it started to grate on my nerves. In effect we are watching the all singing all dancing author showing us her jazz hands on every page which results in cleverness fatigue. I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that I was watching a dog walking on its hind legs and jumping through hoops which is certainly a feeling I have never gotten whilst reading Nabokov.  This raised an important question for me. Was the immaturity I felt emanating from the pages a product of the authors skill as an author immersing us in the world of the teenager? Or was it more simply the immaturity of an immature writer?

While I have no definite conclusions certain factors point to the latter conclusion. The most prominent of these is the existence of a plot device involving a website which features “good” terrorists. You know those unambiguously good terrorists, not like those terrible Al Qaeda fellows.  Without wishing to give away a major plot point, this clunky device is used to exonerate the actions of a central character by removing any moral ambiguity from their motives. What it succeeds in doing is reveal the startling lack of political sophistication in the author. I was baffled by this juvenile device and wondered at its existence. Was it there to placate a mainstream post 9-11 American audience? Was it actually serious? Was Pessl, for want of a better term, taking the piss? For a clever writer it seems exceedingly stupid.

Despite these criticisms there is enough of interest to hold a reader to the end. I was struck with the unshakeable feeling that had I encountered this book as a teenager I would have loved it. On that basis I give Pessl the benefit of the doubt and suspend judgement until her next novel is released. Special Topics is an oft times frustrating read but somewhere within it lie the rudiments of a writer. I would suggest giving it a try and if you find it a frustrating read gift it to your cleverest most bookish niece.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

ISBN: 9780316126694

The Art of Fielding tells the story of baseball savant Henry Skrimshander and the people he encounters when attending Westish Liberal Arts College in Wisconsin on a sports scholarship. Skrimshander’s initial contact with the college begins when he is spotted playing by Westish college baseball captain Mike Schwartz. Schwartz looks past Skrimshander’s diminutive size and notices his aptitude for baseball while watching him play for his small town baseball team the Legion.

Reasoning that such a talented player could turn around the fortunes of the beleaguered Harpooners whom he captains, Schwarz recruits the 17 year old Skrimshander. Soon the Harpooners fortunes are reversed thanks in no small way to Henry. Alas Henry’s record breaking streak comes undone when he injures a teammate with a misplaced throw. Suddenly the weight of other people’s expectations becomes too much to bear and Henry falls victim to ‘Steve Blass’ syndrome. Steve Blass syndrome for those of us who are not baseball aficionados refers to talented baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably lose their ability to throw. It is named after an unfortunate Pittsburgh Pirates player who suffered this frustrating fate after the 1972 season.

Here I must confess to my complete disinterest in and aversion to sport in general. Despite being entirely ignorant of baseball, Henrys paralysis and its implications for himself and those around him fascinated me. It is a credit to Harbach’s skill as a writer that I empathised with Henrys struggle. Harbach successfully conveys what it is to be a sportsperson standing alone in front of an expectant crowd treading the fine line between hero and pariah status.  His descriptions of baseball being played held my attention and have roused my interest in possibly watching baseball at some stage in the future, a feat matched only by Don De Lillo’s Underworld. The baseball element is a large part of the book but the Art of Fielding is not exclusively a sports novel. Henry’s scholarship to a liberal arts college provides elements of the campus novel.

As we can expect from this genre much focus is placed on the interactions which happen over the course of college life. The main characters who we are introduced to are college president Guert Affenlight, his daughter Pella, grizzled self-made college big man Mike Schwartz and placid young Bodhisatva Owen Dunne. As an undergrad Affenlight was responsible for uncovering a visit to the college by Herman Melville who visited while on a lecturing tour. Capitalising on this tenuous connection with Melville, Westish College erected a statue to the great writer and renamed its baseball team the Harpooners in honour of him. Affenlight has spent many years lecturing in Harvard after publishing a successful book on themes in Melville’s Moby Dick and has returned as president of his beloved alma mater. Affenlight seems to have found a sort of peace and stability in his role as president which is short lived due to the return of his daughter Pella who has abandoned her life in San Francisco and returned to the family home. Further to this Affenlight is falling in love with someone you shouldn’t fall in love with, at least not while serving as a college president.

The object of Affenlights affections is Henry’s roommate Owen Dunne, a charming young man who is homosexual and of mixed descent,a liberal’s wet dream. Owen has thoroughly enchanted college president,father, and former ladies’ man Guert Affenlight, who late in life finds himself to be a fan of Thomas Mann as well as Melville. And no wonder. Dunne is not only a student of excellent character and academic ability but is also a competent baseball player. Furthermore he manages both these feats while also being a habitual marijuana user.

This seemed so unlikely to me I began to wonder if perhaps Harbach was taking a tentative foray into magical realism. The same can be said of the implausible working class, noble savage and self-made college big man Mike Schwartz. I found the characters of Owen and Mike Schwartz a little problematic in terms of believability which is a negative for a novel which grounds itself in realism. Both characters feel like white liberal American fantasies and the author gets a little drunk on what he evidently feels to be their exoticism.

This is especially apparent in a novel which consistently references Melville, an author who was able to represent characters from other cultures as complex and fully fleshed out individuals. This could have proved fatal for the book were it not for its strengths which offset calamity.

What first stood out to me about the Art of Fielding was its refreshing straight forwardness and lack of cynicism. Harbach explores the nuances of human relationships and the nature of friendship and his conclusions are surprisingly unjaundiced. He is capable of expressing the complexities and compromises of friendship without denigrating the concept itself. The structure of the novel is similarly straight forward to the point of seeming old fashioned in its solidity and willingness to tell us a story.  I found this combination to be very charming and in the end I was seduced by its simplicity and overall warm tone. The Art of Fielding is a fine example of a good story well told. While not achieving the heights of Melville’s ‘Great American Novel’ Moby Dick, Harbach has commendably written a very good American novel.