Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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.

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