A few weeks ago Jesse and I were discussing the difference between “predictable” and “inevitable” as applied to literature and film (a conversation inspired by the new Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In), and we sort-of decided that the only real difference between the two was that movies or books we liked were “inevitable” and those we did not care for were “predictable.”
With that in mind I will describe The Love Artist as somewhere in between. While reading it I found myself wondering if it were a first novel, and a review I read upon completing it verified my suspicions. Nothing in particular gives this away; Alison’s prose is fantastic in both senses of the word. She is a writer who has the ability to conjure lush, real landscapes as well as the dreamy weirdness of visions and portents. Yet, with all her manifest skill at setting she fell short for me with character.
Though I enjoyed the novel it failed to capture my wholehearted interest, and I feel it should have. As an audience, I share many of the same passions as the author. I like historical fiction. I have a deep love of Ovid’s works, specifically his Metamorphoses, I enjoy stories with witchy elements, strong female characters, Medea, and, additionally, I’ve been to the Black Sea; but The Love Artist made me wonder why I should care about anything that happened to the characters over the course of the book. I found them to be flat and on the whole unsympathetic, and their motivations obscure. Alison seemed to give more time to establishing how Ovid looked (with frequent repetition of such details as the color of his eyes, the leanness of his frame) than why he does what he does, and I also found that she relied too much on the stereotype/archetype of the witch (another debate of wording, such as predictable vs. inevitable) rather than giving Xenia a meaningful personality that might temper Alison’s choice of giving her such a cringeworthy name.
I could never fully grasp why the characters behaved as they did for much of the novel, I think in part because their motivations were so mundane it astonished me. Ovid, once he has his muse and is back in Rome, becomes a hound-dog again, powerless to resist the jewel-bright charms of Roman women, flirting and lying for no really good reason. Xenia comes across as petty and jealous because a jealous woman is an excellent literary device to drive forward a plot. I am fully aware that Alison was in part basing the novel on Medea but at times that decision seemed lazy and made the characters one-dimensional, they never went beyond the expectations of their source material. I also felt that Alison made the mistake of thinking the reader would care about Ovid simply because he is Ovid and not for any more compelling reason, and Xenia because she is a spooky witch wronged by patriarchy and everyone loves a spooky witch wronged by patriarchy.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about The Love- Artist was Alison’s decision to give her all-knowing prophetic witch “blind spots” in her vision, all conveniently located to allow the machinations of the characters to come into bloom. This screamed literary device in the worst way, and I think she could have found a better means to deal with wishing a slow reveal, even just making Xenia unwilling to see her own fate. This goes to show that Alison’s manipulation of suspense was nonexistent– there were no surprises. Most egregiously: the first chapter has three sections– Ovid, Xenia, and Julia, granddaughter of Caesar Augustus. Later we stop hearing much of Julia and Ovid obtains a powerful female patroness in Rome. Who could it be? Again, we return to inevitable vs. predictable.
All in all, The Love-Artist was exactly like the photograph on its cover– lush, initially hypnotic, but superficial and given to an unfortunate privileging of the exotic. I enjoyed reading it but was left wanting more.
I’ve been stretching my ears since last May and I’m almost at my goal size, but it’s been incredibly frustrating lately. I have preternaturally resistant ears and have had to use tape to stretch ever since reaching an 8g. Unfortunately, while trying to stretch from a 2g to a 0g, I somehow developed a sensitivity to the tape I was using. I took a month and a half off from stretching, did all the right things (vitamin E oil, massages, cleaning them, hot soaks, etc.) and yet, and yet, I am still no further along to a 0g than I was back in October when I hit 2g.
The day before Christmas I decided to tape again only to be rewarded with hurty, unhappy ears that started bleeding for the first time since I started the process. Then this morning I woke up and there was pain and swelling, and when I took out my plugs I saw something that looked like pus, but given that it wasn’t green I’m hoping against hope that it was just vitamin E oil or something else. I downsized back to a 2g and just ordered 1g plugs to try to go up 1mm at a time, but I’m feeling very negative about the whole thing. I have several beautiful plugs just waiting for my ears to loosen up, including a pair of gorgeous, ridiculous, amazing, insanely large seraphim Raechel gave me for Christmas.
It’s just frustrating, I’ve been doing everything right, and this is what I’ve reaped. I know they’ll be fine and I’ll salt soak them and my 1g plugs will come but still. I just want them to feel better and be stretchy and nice like normal ears. They’re so resistant it’s insane.
Tomorrow I’m heading down to West Palm Beach for an impromptu visit to John’s family, and I’m hoping to get plenty of reading done on the way down. I’m taking The Love Artist and The Secret History of Moscow, so we’ll see how much I get through. I also have to finalize my syllabus for the spring, though, so we’ll see how much I get through. I can’t believe vacation is almost over. I got a lot of work done editing my book but I was hoping to do more, perhaps I’ll have time upon my return to Tallahassee.
I hope my ears start to feel better soon. I am going to wait at least until my 1g plugs come in to do anything other than clean and/or mess with them but I’m tired of this. I know the 2g-0g stretch is supposed to be rough but not impossible! Sheesh.
Here are the books on my immediate to-read list, in no particular order, although I know I’ll just add random crap as I go:
Lysistrata, Aristophanes (got a new lovely Sandglass hardcover edition with illustrations by Picasso)
The Secret History of Moscow, Ekaterina Sedia (very excited about this)
The Love-Artist, Jane Alison (also very excited about this)
Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe, Lousie Collis
The Annotated Hans Christian Anderson, edited by Maria Tatar
Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control, K.R. Bradley
Greek Religion (not just the sections on Orphism and Dionysos), Walter Burkert
The Greeks and the Irrational, E.R. Dodds
The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius
The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton
I know I’ll have a ton of Jane Austen to add to this list come January as I’m taking a class on her, so that’s in the works, as well.
Day of The Minotaur
Thomas Burnett Swann
Day of the Minotaur was a Christmas present from my friend Jesse. This delightful cover greeted me when I unwrapped my gift:
The author apparently held a Ph.D in literature from University of Florida and taught at Florida Southern University. The most I can say of his writing is that his love of classical mythology is obvious throughout the book. Otherwise, frankly, I am at a loss to say anything much about his style. Calling his prose purple would be unfair, so I’ll settle on calling it lavender as Day of the Minotaur lacked the sensual opulence found in someone like Clark Ashton Smith or the teeth of Angela Carter.
I make the comparison because all three of these authors take mythology and make it their own. Smith and Carter create alternative histories in glorious, sometimes disturbing ways. In stark contrast Swann neuters the myths he appropriates, making them less vital and compelling than their classical incarnations, limited by his own stereotypical, constricting ideas of gender and his own manifest desire to rut with dryads. While Angela Carter can take a well-known myth and re-kindle the fear or trepidation a reader felt when hearing the original by giving it a fresh face, Swann instead made me wish I was instead reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology or just staring at a wall. It feels unspeakably cruel to compare anyone to Piers Anthony, but reading Day of the Minotaur was less like being transported to the ancient world and more like an unpleasant reminder of how many hours I spent in Xanth as a kid before I realized that creepy books written by older guys about young girls and their panties made me uncomfortable for good reason. I’m pretty sure Piers took a page from Day of the Minotaur and that makes me feel a little bit bad for Swann but not much.
At any rate, Swann seems to be a particularly icky letch, the kind who lacks the courage of his convictions. Or something. I can get down with stories written by icky letches, mind you, but they have to deliver the goods. Swann doesn’t. He describes the barely 16-year old love-interest Thea as “ripe for marriage” but doesn’t have the stones to deflower her with his pen. Instead of hot raunchy minotaur sex, which would actually be entertaining, we get long passages of dialogue like this scene between Icarus, a half-dryad Minoan prince, and Eunostos, the minotaur narrator:
“You and Zoe used to be more than friends, didn’t you?”
I nodded, with perhaps the hint of a smirk.
“And other women too,” he continued. “You must have had hundreds. You’re just what they like. A regular bull of a man.”
Almost of itself, my chest expanded to its full dimensions, my tail twitched, my flanks felt the urge to strut. “It’s true that one kind likes me. Free-living women.”
“One kind admits she likes you. Secretly, all of them do. Look at Thea.”
The subject intrigued me. “Thea, you say?”
“Can’t take her eyes off you. But frankly, the other, non-sisterly kind interests me more. I don’t feel up to a long, exhausting courtship. I’m not as young as I was. That’s why I want you to take me wenching.”
Ouch. Such interactions pervade the action of the novel, bringing as much pain to the reader’s mind as they obviously brought something else to the author’s lower regions, as Eunostos is nothing more than Swann’s vaugely bovine proxy. Eunostos/Swann’s discussions of “wenching” (ugh) and drinking and good clean forest revelry do little to recall any scenes in the classical literature from which he draws his iconography and instead do more to make his world seem like a particularly annoying multispecies commune, which makes sense given the 1966 publishing date.
Although on some level it feels unnecessary and a touch mean-spirited to heavily critique a fantasy novel written over 30 years ago, there is something to be said for examining such problematic material. Swann’s Day of the Minotaur demonstrates beautifully how problematic it can be to set modern-sounding characters in the historical past, even when that past is deliberately fictionalized. Thea’s obsession with redecorating Eunostos’ lair and giving him a makeover makes her less of an ethereal half-human wood-maiden and more the shrill stereotype she really is. Ajax, the Achaean villain, feels more like a quasi-medieval feudal overlord from a fantasy novel than a brash Homeric warrior. Swann’s minotaur also feels too modern, even with his hooves and horns, a dorky swaggering beast-man who brings to mind dudes who hang around hostels hoping to score with drunk girls rather than the fearsome man-eating terror of Minos’ labyrinth. It’s sad that Burnett’s novel is so bland, because his concept is interesting and he clearly knows his subject. His problem is his own desires come out too much, make his personal fantasies too obvious to the reader. I felt embarrassed reading Day of the Minotaur, like I was intruding into Burnett’s private sex-dreams where he’s a seven-foot tall Casanova of the Woodland Realms. And that’s no place I wanted to be.
Collecting books is no sin but I have quite a few lying around that I haven’t even cracked, much less given the attention they merit. Given that the last two weeks have included cashing out my credit at my local used bookstore and Christmas, I have decided to make a concerted effort to start a queue and get through it, blogging as I go. I am hoping the process of journaling about reading will inspire me to stop my bad habit of reading most of a book and then abandoning it for something new, an appalling habit I have developed with both fiction and non-fiction. I also also intend to use this as a convenient space for recording interesting tidbits from my non-fiction instead of simply jotting down incoherent notes in either random Word documents on my computer or instantly-lost pieces of notebook paper.