1 March, 2008Issue 7.2FictionLiterature

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Demonstrating Myth

Joshua Billings

Ali Smith
Girl Meets Boy
Canongate, 2007
164 pages
ISBN 978-1841958699

Su Tong
Binu and the Great Wall
Canongate, 2007
292 pages
ISBN 978-1841959047

Salley Vickers
Where Three Roads Meet
Canongate, 2007
200 pages
ISBN 978-1841959863

We must everywhere present myth more demonstrably,” wrote the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin in notes to accompany his Sophocles translations. “More demonstrable:” more relevant to the present, more comprehensible in modern terms, more our own. Myth dies when it is merely received, taken as a finished work to be enjoyed and then discarded. It must be demonstrated anew in the act of retelling. Myth transforms its listeners into tellers.

Or readers into writers. This is the premise of Canongate’s Myths series, which collects literary retellings of myths from writers all over the world. The project’s scope extends to myths from a variety of different cultures and tellers from diverse literary traditions. Since the project was launched in 2005, nine volumes have appeared, with more to come. The series aims to make myth vital again by demonstrating that it is an activity for the present, not a canon frozen in the past. Rather than mindlessly repeating the old myths or hubristically trying to create new ones ex nihilo, we should make the existing myths more our own.

The results are, as one would expect in a project of such wide scope, mixed. I read the three most recent offerings, and was disappointed to find them rather more stale than fresh. Two of the volumes, Su Tong’s Binu and the Great Wall and Salley Vickers’s Where Three Roads Meet, largely failed due to a lack of boldness in appropriating their stories for the present. Boldness is nowhere lacking in Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, by far the most successful of the three, though occasionally its audacity shades over into silliness. The project overall is an exciting one, but its products so far betray a certain lack of imagination.

Binu and the Great Wall is a retelling of one of China’s most cherished myths, and suffers from an excess of reverence for its story, a reluctance to bring out any relevance it might hold for readers today. A woman goes in search of her husband, who has been abducted to work on the construction of the Great Wall. Learning that he has died in the brutal working conditions, her tears and lamentations are so powerful that the Wall itself falls. The design of the tale is epic—a long journey to reach an uncertain goal, and Binu consists of an episodic narration of the journey from the woman’s home in Peach Village to the site of her husband’s death.

Odysseys, and Binu surely is one, are difficult to bring off successfully, since their stories dictate no clear arch, only a beginning and an end. They can expand or contract at the will of the author, and require a constant stream of innovation to keep the reader’s interest. Making such a story engaging for the present requires that the author reinvent not just the relatively confined set of characters and relationships that make up most myths, but the entire diversity of a place and time. In retelling the myth of Meng, Tong must bring the China of the First Emperor (roughly 200 BCE) to life for an audience two millennia and thousands of miles distant.

Binu and the Great Wall does not live up to this ambition. Part of the problem may be Howard Goldblatt’s translation, which attempts a simple, poetic style, but largely sounds strained, with the prose oddly flat. But even more fundamentally, the episodic structure does not have the vibrancy to sustain its 300 pages. Binu’s journey quickly becomes monotonous: the people and places she encounters are unmemorable, recurring elements show no development, and character remains static throughout. The narrative plods along with her, each new episode only vaguely distinct from the last.

Binu’s recounting of its story feels obligatory, unmotivated by any pressing need to remake the myth’s meaning. For the most part, Tong seems content with docile archaisation, which makes the story feel tired, without relevance to contemporary readers. Binu feels like cautious repetition rather than original demonstration.

Where Three Roads Meet, by psychoanalyst and author Salley Vickers, shows a good deal more ingenuity, though little more success. Unlike Tong, Vickers does make an attempt to imagine her myth, the story of Oedipus, anew. She tells it in the voice of Tiresias, the blind seer, who recounts his life as a prophet and the story of Oedipus from his perspective as witness. His interlocutor throughout is Sigmund Freud, whose reading of Oedipus’s life in the context of psychoanalysis remains perhaps the most powerful demonstration of the myth’s modernity. The conceit is promising, especially as it is linked to a particularly fascinating time in Freud’s life, his exile in England after the Austrian capitulation to the Nazis. There is a neat parallel between Tiresias’s blindness and Freud’s increasing inability to speak due to long-standing and painful complications from jaw cancer. Vickers’s story has all the makings of a true reimagining, bringing three mythologised men together to explore the potential of their common stories.

Vickers’s execution, though, frustratingly leaves its potential unrealised. Even with the possibilities of three myths to draw from, she plays it safe, sticking more or less to a narration of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (with a quick look to Oedipus at Colonus as a coda) and the party line of Freudian psychoanalysis. She rarely probes or questions, and adds little to the piles of interpretation of both men. Oedipus appears in no new light, and Freud’s commentary is reduced to cute quips.

Suggestively, Vickers fills in some of Tiresias’s history, recounting the experiences (some of them mythical, some invented) that shaped the seemingly implacable character we know from Sophocles. Yet there is nothing original even here: Tiresias’s blinding, his years as a woman, his life in Thebes are all sketched for the doctor, who interprets them in tired psychoanalytic terms. What emerges is not a living myth that continues to pose questions and problems, but one interpreted into inertness. The exercise becomes utterly predictable, too reverential towards both Socrates and Freud to demonstrate any new relevance.

Can myth today be anything but a museum piece? Yes, as Ali Smith makes brilliantly clear in her Girl Meets Boy, a retelling of Ovid’s comparatively little-known story of Iphis and Ianthe. Perhaps the obscurity of the story is part of her success—it is easier to be irreverent towards a few lines of Ovid’s encyclopedic collection than the most revered myth of one’s country or the most interpreted play of all time. But there is more: Smith has departed further than either Tong or Vickers from her source, and in the process thrown in contemporary takes on issues of gender and sexuality (which are undoubtedly present in Ovid), as well as global capitalism and its effect on the environment (which are not).

Ovid’s story explores sexual ambiguity in a tight form: the baby girl Iphis is raised by her mother, in cahoots with the goddess Isis, as a boy, fulfilling the father’s desire for a male child. Iphis falls in love with another girl, Ianthe, and the two are engaged. Before their wedding, the goddess Isis returns to change Iphis into a boy, allowing the marriage to go forward. Smith retains Ovid’s happy ending (indeed, part of what draws her to the story seems to be its unusually light touch in the context of the Metamorphoses), but dispenses with the transformation: after some fairly trivial tribulations, the love between the two girls is accepted and celebrated by friends and family.

Smith runs the risk here of creating something quite banal, a literary advertisement for lesbian love. She dances even closer to the cliff of silliness by giving her two lovers a foil in a homophobic, anorexic, success-obsessed sister working for that greatest of evils, a bottled water company. The book turns into a contest between the forces of good (the environmentalist, anti-capitalist couple) and evil (the environment-destroying, crassly capitalist corporation) for the sister’s soul. It is an unfair fight, and no divine intervention is needed to reach Smith’s happy ending.

Yet Girl Meets Boy is a joy to read. It is told alternately in the breathless voices of two sisters: the bored adolescent who falls in love with a girl, and her responsible, scandalised older sister. Love’s first sight is overpoweringly corporeal:

My head, something happened to its insides. It was as if a storm at sea happened, but only for a moment, and only on the inside of my head. My ribcage, something definitely happened there. It was as if it unknotted itself from itself, like the hull of a ship hitting rock, giving way, and the ship that I was opened wide inside me and in came the ocean.

The voice is colloquial but evocative, simultaneously unpretentious and literary (all those metaphors, stretched to their breaking point!). Smith’s prose is often challenging in its leaps and turns, and this complexity saves it from the potential banality of her subjects (as was also the case in her most recent novel, The Accidental).

As in Smith’s other novels, we begin in medias res, and it takes the reader some time to catch up with what is actually going on. Reading is often dizzying and disconcerting. But by the time we come to the happy ending, an imagined wedding party attended by a chorus of characters, living and dead, from the novel and Greek mythology, we have learned to revel in Smith’s rhapsodic, non-linear narration. Her playful prose and exposition create a pleasant sense of mayhem, but one so expertly controlled that it never spins off into chaos.

Smith’s audacity in reimagining her story, her willingness to find radically new meanings, is what makes Girl Meets Boy such a pleasure. There is nothing exceptional in Ovid’s plot, nor even in Smith’s “remix” of it (a contrast to the much more pregnant myths of Meng and Oedipus). Its power lies in the craft of its telling, the meanings Smith is able to wring out of her material. She relies on her own powers to enliven the story, rather than expecting the story to bear the burden of its repetition. Smith’s style animates myth, making its meaning as robust today as it was in Roman times. She fulfills Hölderlin’s dictum, making Ovid’s myth more demonstrable, more present, more our own.