Monday, October 21, 2013

mill-grist: Kate Bernheimer's collection of new myths

A recently published collection of Fifty New Myths deserves careful consideration by students of classical mythology.

Kate Bernheimer, ed., xo Orpheus: fifty new myths (Penguin 2013), offers plenty of grist for the mill
of classical mythological reception.  The editor has drawn in a richly variegated assortment of fifty shortstories into this anthology.

Contrary to my initial expectations, only one narrative in this collection treats the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, "Dark Resort" by Heidi Julavits. Because of Rachel Arons' notice of this book in this week's New Yorker, which featured Bernheimer's seven most favorite usages of the Orpheus myth, I was expecting her collection to offer a heaping plateful of (four dozen plus?) new Orpheus myths.  But the Penguin anthology casts the net more broadly and draws in about one new narrative for each classical myth considered

Indeed, not every item in Bernheimer's edited collection is based upon the "classical" mythology from Greece and Rome. Rather, the catch hauls in myths from Native American, Inuit, Aztec, and Punjabi, Norse cultures and so forth. Thus, while all installments will attract most readers, for students of classical reception, per se, the scope limited to about three dozen intriguing artifacts.

The nourishing feature of the collection, to maintain the mill-grist metaphor from above, is the statement at the end of each myth, a germ from its author stating particular gains intended in the new telling. Thus, Julavits indicates in her observation that she was consciously telling the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, even though the names do not appear directly in her unhappy story of loss at the beach. Had we encountered in an open field Julavits' story of nameless honeymooners on a violent seashore, could we have said with certainty that that's Orpheus (himself) who fails to bring appropriate aid in time? Each author, we can piece together, arranged with Bernheimer to address one or another myth; and this one was pinned for the Orpheus slot. For added intrigue, Julavits explains her intention to write the story according the cinematic code of the Dogme school. With this information in hand, a scholarly sleuth can read the new myth against a zero-grade telling of Eurydice's — or Orpheus'?—  demise.

If Bernheimer tells us how the stories were chosen or assigned, I do not see it. I piece together from the individual authors' statements that individual choices were made. But never mind that. The creation is marvelous. Bernheimer's collection can be consulted alphabetically — e.g. Daedalus, Daphne, Demeter — or by author, so as to see how Aurelie Sheehan or Elizabeth Evans measures up against classical materials. And there is much to dig into here. Especially with the authors' own statements leading the path to discovery, students in the Classical Mythology course should find something that will inspire great efforts.

Classical usages include these:
Argos, Odysseus' faithful dog: Joy Williams, "Argos"
Bacchantes: Sabina May, "The Sisters"
... and, later under "m", Maenads: Elizabeth Evans, "Slaves"
Baucis and Philemon: Edward Carey, "Sawdust"
Candaules and Gyges: Elanor Dymott, "Henry and Booboo"
Cronos: Aimee Bender, "Devourings"
Daedalus (bis): Ron Currie, Jr., "Layrinth" and
                        Anthony Mara, "The Last Flight of Daedalus"
Daphne: Dawn Raffel, "Daphne"
Demeter: Maile Meloy, "Demeter'
Demeter and Persephone: Willy Vlautin, "Kid Collins"
       and Emma and Peter Straub, "Lost Lake"
Eris: Gina Ochsner, "Sleeping Beauty"
Galatea and Pygmalion: Madeline Miller, "Galatea:
Golem and Pygmalion: Benjamin Percy, "The Dummy"
Hades: Kate Bernheimer, "The Girl with the Talking Shadow"
Icarus: G-O. Chateaureynaud, "An Occasional Icarus"
Lamia: Elizabeth McCracken, "Birdsong from the Radio"
The Lotus Eaters: Aurelie Sheehan, "The Lotus Eaters"
Narcissus: Zachary Mason, "Narcissus"
Odysseus (bis)" Michael Jeffrey Lee, "Back to Blandon" and
      Davis Schneiderman, "The Story I am Speaking to You Now"
Oedipus: Imad Rahman, "The Brigadier-General Takes his Final Stand, by James Butt"
Orpheus and Eurydice: Heidi Julavits, "Dark Resort"
Phaethon: Kevin Wilson, "What Wants My Son"
Poseidon: Laird Hunt, "Thousand"
Sisyphus: Kit Reed, "Sissy"
Trojan Horse: Johanna Skibsrud, "A Horse, a Vine"
Zeus and Europa: Sarah Blackman, "The While Horse"
Edith Hamilton's Mythology  also features in one short story.
   This contribution is clearly among the collection's most intriguing. Coauthors Kelly Braffet and Owen King offer in "The Status of Myth" [citing Edith Hamilton's Mythology as the referent] a handful of brief character vignettes glimpsing ghosts of mythological types in modern situations. One tale convinces us that those girls who emerge by night in the San Fernando Valley are neither zombies nor vampires, but actually Artemis' train: "Stay away from Main Street after dark. If you can. But if you can't avoid it, and you do find yourself among them, don't look too closely at their faces." Orion is the benign tracker who assures his peers after little Irena was abducted from a playground. The pop star Ganymede, who goes by G, pops in on a cancer patient. Rhea shelters her children from her abusive husband. Narcissus, Athena, and that bacchante revelling in an unbreakable relic from the past — all  articulate Braffet and King's "extremely literal" rendering of stories from Edith Hamilton's Mythology, "lay[ing] them directly atop contemporary characters. What does it mean to be Ganymede in 2013 What does it mean to be Rhea in 2013?"

   For me, the Braffet and King approach shows much more vitality than others in the collection. Kit Reed's ostensible contribution to the Sisyphus myth confuses me. "Sissy" opens with an overt allusion to Oedipus: "To become a man, every first son has to kill his father. Oedipus taught us that, right?" I read through the apparent misdirection of that opening, watching for allusions to Sisyphus, for the story's over-title and placement in the collection tell me that "Sissy" is a telling of the Sisyphus myth. The abusive patriarch in a wife-beater maligns his son each page as "sissybitch" and "sissy" lords it over his white-trash home by battering and bruising his tolerant wife. The tale sure feels and looks every bit Oedipal. Kit Reed reveals in her afternote that "Sisyphus makes a perfect protagonist. ... So I took the story of Sisyphus and on the basis of a hasty Google, knew what I wanted to do with him. Yes, 'Sissy' is about a guy. He's one of those males who has to kill his father before he can take the throne — and like so many only sons he has mother issues."

I wish she hadn't admitted that. A Google search is the basis of the research? I want to think that the crafting of a good read took some time and some effort. Perhaps the classicist in me emerging. Perhaps the allusions to the creation of San Jose's Winchester Mystery Mansion constitute convincing reference to the Sisyphean project. But an admission by the author that "two myths fused at tremendous speeds" makes me negatively critical of the story's failure to separate clearly  the Oedipal from the Sisyphean. Or, perhaps I write in haste, and a third — or subsequent — reading will yet clarify how the story's protagonist is actually the beaten wife, one Sarah Lockwood Winchester and her toil is the point of the tale.

I have a long way to go before I've plumbed these depths. There is much in this collection of myths that will distract and delight students of Greek mythology. And the engagement will occupy their energy much more productively, I dare say, than what many facile retellings of classical myths apparently offer.

— M


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