by Elizabeth Cook
Picador USA, 128 pages, $16.00
Elizabeth Cook's reinterpretation of the Iliad demonstrates that epic verse has yet to exhaust its ability to assume new and surprising shapes. This poetic masterpiece, a psychologically acute portrait of the Homeric hero Achilles, begins by depicting him in Hell, jealously yearning for the physical satisfactions that the living take for granted.
This is what happens when you are dead:
You know the living are up there, driving your horses, ploughing your fields, handling your bowls. Eating. The living are always eating; their tongues fossicking among the bones.
A trendy and unimaginative approach to the Iliad would be to resurrect Achilles in a contemporary setting, perhaps as an inner-city cop seeking vengeance for his partner's death. Cook is more innovative; she preserves the otherworldly preoccupations of the Homeric world—mortals resent the tedium of Hades and make love to sea nymphs, while a goddess wrestles with her desire for solitude—but imbues this antiquated material with a post-Freudian emotional sensibility, focusing more on the nuances of individual motivation than on the grandeur of the action. Thus her warriors are remarkably sensitive souls, attuned to the exquisiteness of human feeling. Patroclus, she suggests, "loves Achilles but not so much as he is loved" and is humbled by the knowledge "that he is less than Achilles even in this." Stylistically, Achilles is also unfailingly modern: swift, cinematic, sexually explicit, and ravishingly beautiful. Cook, a former university lecturer and Renaissance scholar, intensifies the lyrical weirdness of Greek mythology by emphasizing the ironic. Apples on Mount Pelion are so delectable that "no human there would choose a gold one," and Achilles' "sumptuous" hatred for Hector spreads "slowly, luxuriously, like cream."
A daring author—and Cook borders on the swashbuckling—is bound to hit the occasional false note. When Achilles lets out a loud war whoop, she jarringly writes that "the Trojans shit themselves." And her postmodern final chapter reads like an extended non sequitur, a lengthy meditation on John Keats's indebtedness to Achilles that is supposed to illustrate the Iliad's inspirational reach. The academic window dressing is unnecessary; Cook's stunning tale is proof enough that Achilles' story resonates through the ages.
The Aztec Treasure House
by Evan S. Connell
Counterpoint, 470 pages, $28.00
Evan S. Connell's The Aztec Treasure House—comprising essays from his previous collections The White Lantern (1980) and A Long Desire (1979) along with two new pieces—is a book to lay up for gloomy afternoons or rainy evenings. In its pages an amateur scholar and accomplished writer—see his best-selling Custer biography, Son of the Morning Star (1984), and his celebrated novel Mrs. Bridge (1959)—lures us into eye-widening journeys down the rabbit holes and back alleys of history, legend, and humane learning. Like the Wedding Guest mesmerized by the Ancient Mariner, when Connell starts telling these tales of intellectual and geographical adventure, we cannot choose but hear.
What kind of tales, you ask? The oldest and the best. For instance, Connell explores the origins of sunken Atlantis and of mysterious Mu, tracks the Norse discovery of America (including the possibility of a Viking-Indian battle in Minnesota), and outlines the medieval belief in Prester John, an all-powerful Christian emperor of the East. Other pages describe the quest for El Dorado, chronicle the search for the Missing Link and the reckless determination of Antarctic explorers, summarize the career of the alchemist Paracelsus, and trace the astonishing wanderings around the known world of the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Batuta, who covered at least 75,000 miles in all. Here, too, are mini-accounts of the Rosetta stone and the Children's Crusade and the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.
In short, The Aztec Treasure House is a twenty-part testament to the joy of finding things out. Connell would appear to have read widely around some tantalizing topic, jotted down reams of notes, and then condensed everything he had learned about, say, Etruscan civilization into a genial 7,000 words. His prose is conversational, often addressing the reader directly; his path through a subject is rambling and easygoing. Yet he can evoke suspense with the flick of an adverb: "Present wisdom holds that the last unadulterated Neanderthal died 40,000 years ago. However, one April evening in 1907 some Russian explorers ..." He can be unexpectedly touching, too, as in this note on a civilization in the Indus Valley that flourished 4,000 years ago: "In the rubble of a little city called Chanhu-Daro an archaeologist noticed a brick with the print of a cat's paw slightly overlapped by the paw of a dog. These were not symbolic designs but actual prints left by the animals as they raced across a wet brick. And it was clear from the impress of the pads that both had been going full speed, the dog chasing the cat."
Of course, like any virtuoso, Connell sometimes lets out all the rhetorical stops, going for a baroque organ roll of prose poetry: "This was the time of a Dark Age in Greece, between the decay of Mycenaean civilization and the emergence of those wise marble Pericleans against whom we half-consciously measure ourselves. It was a time when that templed colossus, Egypt, was beginning to crumble. Assyrian armor glinted ominously. Phrygian trumpets bellowed. Phoenician traders drove westward, dipping their sails at Carthage and Tartessus. Fresh currents rippled the length of the Mediterranean." But don't worry: such grand flights are rare. Before long Connell is back poking fun at one of his obsessed antiquarians: "Soon he had become not only an expert on Akkadian cuneiform but had partly deciphered the Cypriot syllabary, which sounds just as exciting."
Actually, it does sound exciting. In the middle of some reflections on Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Newton, our storyteller writes, "Many remarkable things may be explained, but why we are so faintly instructed by the past does not seem to be among them." Yes—but if we had more books like The Aztec Treasure House, we would doubtless be more understanding of the human circus and more enthusiastic about studying its past. As the old maps used to promise, here be dragons.
All For Love
by Ved Mehta
Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 355 pages, $24.95
Despite that lush romance-novel title, Ved Mehta's account of his early love life proves to be an edgy, scrupulously frank tale of erotic misadventure. Commencing with the blind Indian-born author's arrival in 1960s New York after he lands a coveted job as a staff writer for The New Yorker, All for Love details Mehta's relationships with four women who seem to share a mission—tormenting him. The Jewish ballet dancer Gigi, the flighty Englishwoman Vanessa, his fellow Indian Lola, and the emotionally unstable Kilty all lure Mehta into periods of erotic intensity, only to dump him cruelly. Gigi, for instance, leaves him for an ex-lover after admitting that she could never commit to a non-Jew, and Vanessa chooses another man and devotion to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh over life with the author. Before long the reader might well wonder if Mehta isn't something of a glutton for punishment in his choice of lovers.
This would make for gloomy reading if it weren't for Mehta's wonderfully self-lacerating style and his gentlemanly refusal to blame these troubled women for his heartaches. Lola, who winds up running a chain of Denim Depot clothes stores in India, would have been an easy figure to ridicule, but Mehta instead depicts a confused, vibrant soul unwilling to lead the life of a writer's companion. Rather than taking revenge, the author turns his focus inward, admitting that what these women shared was not sadism but the illusory belief that Mehta's blindness would allow him to look beneath their skin and see some better selves within them. He is reluctantly helped toward this insight during a course of psychotherapy with the fractious, cigar-chomping Dr. Bak, who brutally reminds Mehta that "to love somebody the way you did, without regard for your own well-being, is a way of avoiding being loved." Although these therapy sessions, with their occasional lapses into Freudian banality, may lack the dramatic sparkle of the book's earlier sections, they do provide a fitting coda to Mehta's most unsentimental education.
by Jonathan Dee
Doubleday, 388 pages, $24.95
Describing one of the second-banana players in his expansive new novel, Jonathan Dee writes that his "imagination was powered by a deep conflation of passion and irony." The same thing might be said of the author himself. Palladio, in fact, represents a pitched battle between the two, fought on multiple fronts. In one narrative strand Molly Howe grows up in Ulster, New York, a genteel hinterland that seems to her "not so much where she belonged as simply where she found herself." Like most suburbs in American fiction, Ulster is a hotbed of denial and familial dysfunction, and Molly absorbs the spirit of the place to a pathological degree. By the time she flees, at age eighteen, dodging the fallout from her affair with a married man, she has learned to handle emotions like hazardous materials. Here, in short, is a child of her time, which happens to be the flat-affect eighties.
Meanwhile, Dee tracks the career of a young adman, John Wheelright. With its bustling, meretricious energy, Madison Avenue gives a healthy jolt to the author's prose, just as it did in his novel The Liberty Campaign (1993). Yet John, like Molly, tends to fall short when it comes to passionate engagement: "Anything truly interesting usually became less interesting, even to him, when he heard himself trying to explain it." Suspicious, perhaps, of his own equilibrium, John abandons his agency for Palladio, a kind of advertising ashram in rural Virginia. There he joins a crusade to change the world by means of better, artier ads, to wipe the "wry smile of irony ... off the face of our age."
Do the tales converge? Indeed they do, not once but twice—and because the first collision is a romantic one, the second is inevitably, satisfyingly tragic. Alas, Dee seems to lose control of Palladio as it moves toward the climax. First he relinquishes the point of view to John, whose rapidly eroding innocence is no substitute for the narrator's wide-angle wisdom. Then he splinters things even further, nudging various other characters to center stage and concluding with a confetti of slogans, captions, and ad copy. This last move is particularly damaging. It seems to suggest that all language, all feeling, all perception, must ultimately derive from the media. This is a postmodern pill that many readers will be reluctant to swallow, and Dee's accomplished and individual novel proves exactly how wrong it is—even if the book's messy architecture is anything but Palladian.
by Helen Dunmore
Grove Press, 294 pages, $24.00
Set in 1941 Leningrad, Helen Dunmore's novel opens with deceptively gentle scenes of Chekhovian melancholy. After the death of her mother, twenty-three-year-old Anna Levin must give up her artistic studies to look after her five-year-old brother and her politically suspect father, whose writing has fallen out of favor with Stalin's cultural police. So she jumps at the chance to sketch the reclusive theatrical grande dame Marina Petrovna, with whom Anna's father might once have been romantically allied. But Anna's worries about art and romance are soon swept away as the Germans besiege her native city. Dunmore's novel transforms abruptly as well, shifting from a quiet idyll into a study of survival under the most extreme hardship. Anna's abundant creativity is put to use ferreting out food and fuel for her helpless family, and her drawing skills are called on to sketch a neighbor's starved baby so that the grieving mother might remember her lost child. Even Anna's love affair with a young doctor is overwhelmed by the rude dictates of survival, which force the couple to forgo lovemaking for a simple sharing of body heat.
Dunmore is at her best when portraying a horrifying scene in lyrical tones, whether it be a dead man's face covered by scintillating frost or a starving family consuming a pot of jam with drunken bliss. She wisely chooses to keep the war just beyond the novel's fringes, having it lay siege to her story without ever invading the action. Only occasionally does she indulge in commonplaces, most notably with the kindhearted whore Evgenia and the steely-eyed bureaucrat in charge of rationing the city's dwindling food, Pavlov. But these shortcomings only momentarily stall a novel that avoids consoling truisms to explore the stories of the forgotten dead.
by Susan Minot
Knopf, 128 pages, $18.00
Sex and the single girl have seldom been absent from Susan Minot's fiction. Her second collection, let's recall, was titled Lust & Other Stories (1989), and even her 1992 period piece, Folly, included the odd glimpse of Edwardian canoodling. Still, Minot has raised the erotic ante with Rapture, structuring this short novel around a single act of fellatio. No doubt the opening salvo in book groups across America will be Was it good for you, too? Yet readers in search of a paper-and-ink aphrodisiac are bound to be disappointed, because the author's take on oral intimacy—on any intimacy, really—is less rapturous than we might expect.
The protagonists, Kay and Benjamin, have been locked in a romantic agony for more than a year, because the latter is involved with another woman. This hasn't prevented him from making the occasional cameo appearance in Kay's bed, usually without much premeditation, and the close encounter that Minot chronicles here is the pair's first in many months. Nonetheless, things seem to be falling short in the ecstasy department. Kay can't keep her mind on the business at hand: "It often happened at some point during sex: the oddness of what she was doing, in this case, swallowing a man's private parts, pumping him up and down. He wasn't making a sound or a movement. For an instant she felt the absurdity of sex like a wink."
To be sure, Kay attains a certain spiritual momentum by the end, feeling "lifted and golden and electric." But it's hard not to think that the whole thing is wasted on her partner, a quintessential masculine clod who can't keep his pants zipped up. This bed hopping does present some logistical challenges, over which Ben mulls while he's being serviced: "It had never helped, in his experience, to admit anything. You just got punished for it. His male friends all corroborated this: never tell." No wonder his climax is so, well, anticlimactic. Rapture, in fact, would make an excellent argument for abstinence, were it not for the genuine allure of Minot's prose. Her ruminations on modern romance have an old-fashioned glow to them, while the graphic bits manage to evoke James Salter's sublimely lyrical French postcard, A Sport and a Pastime. And despite her half-ironic title, sex in Minot's fiction is at least a temporary sacrament—and anything but safe. —James Marcus
Servants of the Map
by Andrea Barrett
Norton, 270 pages, $24.95
In her latest collection of short stories Andrea Barrett continues a preoccupation with scientific themes adumbrated in her novels Lucid Stars (1988) and The Forms of Water (1993), one that didn't fully emerge until her National Book Award-winning collection Ship Fever (1996). That volume's carefully studied, densely detailed accounts of the romance and the trauma of scientific discovery displayed a mastery of the difficult art of organizing and communicating forbidding narrative material, which reached even more impressive heights in The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), in effect a modern Victorian novel about a disastrous polar expedition and its complex human cost.
Most of the six stories in this new collection are explicitly related to these two earlier books. For example, Nora Kynd, an Irish immigrant who finds her vocation by caring for tubercular patients in the Adirondack Mountains ("The Cure"), is the sister of Ned Kynd, the ship's cook who survived the extremities suffered by the Narwhal's crew. Lavinia Wells, the mercurial and intellectually hungry narrator of "Theories of Rain," is the mother of the botanist Erasmus Darwin Wells, a voyager on the Narwhal and that novel's narrator. In fact, a reader familiar with the immediate predecessors of Servants of the Map gradually senses that Barrett is writing a huge serial novel, akin to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha cycle or Louise Erdrich's interconnected Native American novels, isolating diverse (nineteenth and twentieth century) and diversely questing characters and then painstakingly showing us how they are interrelated.
All these matters are recounted in an efficient prose. Though we might expect metaphors drawn from scientific techniques or natural processes, Barrett's figurative language, with which she is sparing, is more varied. Her crisp declarative sentences are usually bluntly informative (a "night-watcher" over moribund patients "was often the last to see someone alive"); occasionally they're veined with understated wry humor ("They made love in a dark museum attic, accompanied by the faint ticking of deathwatch beetles").
Such scrupulous reportorial and rhetorical attention blends exactitude and compassion, giving clarity and emotional force to Barrett's investigations of people seeking to understand the laws that govern and trouble both the visible universe and their own invariably distinctive bodies and minds.