I was away the week before last, for a brief holiday in the US’s island state to celebrate the birthday of my far better half. It was an important birthday. Hawaii Five-O, hint, hint. I hadn’t been to the US for 15 years. George W. Bush was president when I left. His Republican successor in the White House is causing a few nightmares, yet some American dreams live on, and I finally made a long-lasting one come true: I drove a Mustang convertible. Now, I suppose I need a literary reference for this story so it doesn’t look like I’m just hooning around, so I’ll note that when I mentioned it this week to Peter Carey, son of a car salesman, his judgment of me was … “What a hoon!” (Carey was in touch, by the way, to make sure I knew Hisham Matar had won a Pulitzer prize for his memoir The Return.)
OK, here’s another: one of the places I drove to was Pearl Harbor, which I’d not visited before. Walking through the memorials and museums, I was struck by the echoes between what I was seeing and what I was reading in two new novels, each of which reimagine Greek myths: David Vann’s Bright Air Black and Colm Toibin’s House of Names. Both could be said to be feminist reinterpretations of the old stories, centred on men who make war and women who suffer and must act, sometimes cruelly.
Vann’s novel retells some of the story of Jason and Medea, starting on the Black Sea aboard the Argo. Medea has murdered her brother and the opening chapter is brutal. She cuts pieces off the corpse and throws them overboard to slow down their father Aeetes, who is in pursuit. “Her brother dismembered at her feet. This is how the world begins.” Later, on land, she needs Jason to change his mind. “She must convince Jason now, become something impossible and make him believe. A test even for the stupidity of men.” Vann is one of the most thrilling writers to emerge in the past decade. Interestingly, he sees his new book as the continuation of a Greek tragedies cycle that started with his autobiographical novella Legend of a Suicide. For me, that devastating book, and successors such as Goat Mountain, are the peaks of Vann’s work so far, but Bright Air Black is right up there with them.
Toibin’s House of Names centres on the house of Atreus and Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, their daughters Iphigenia and Electra and son Orestes. Here is Iphigenia to her father, who has decided to sacrifice her so the gods will change the wind and speed the Greek fleet to Troy. “I ask my father what no daughter should ever have to ask. Father, do not kill me!” Soon after she considers the unimportance of a single life. Toibin is such a beautiful writer. Every sentence here contains much more than the words that form it. Earlier, Clytemnestra thinks Iphigenia will be married to Achilles. “This will be the end of our troubles, I thought. Achilles has been sent to us to end what began before I was born, before my husband was born. Some poison in our blood, in all our blood. Old crimes and desires for vengeance. Old murders and memories of murder. Old wars and old treacheries.” But now, with the promise of Achilles, she sees “an end to strife, a time when men would grow old with ease, and battles would become the subject of high talk as night fell and memories faded …” This was in my head as I roamed Pearl Harbor. I was reminded of another experience in the US: visiting a Civil War memorial after reporting on the execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh in Terre Haute, Indiana. This was just three months before the September 11 attacks. It all made me think about the man-made history of violence. Quote of the week: ”They should throw my book against the wall, pick up the pieces and then put them together in a different way.” Julian Barnes’s advice to the filmmakers behind an adaptation of his Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of an Ending.