Though the first half of this novel takes place in a car, something is off from your classic road trip tale. For one, the car is weighed down with boxes of literary references, an accumulation of knowledge that proves fruitless to the story itself. The destination and purpose of the trip is muddled, the characters are unnamed, and the language and audiobooks keep looping back on themselves in what becomes a frustrating but embodied experience. Spoiler alert: this is not unintentional. In a myriad of creative and self-referential ways, Luiselli’s novel comments on how we understand, interpret and retell stories, and more specifically on how stories (and thus, lives) of immigrants and indigenous people, of lost children and lost adults, are interrupted, co-opted, interwoven and then pushed apart—objects in motion, we all are.
The novel begins to breathe and move at last in Part Two once the children take over. Ma, the teller of Part One, and her husband have different approaches to representing story. Their roles as the documentarian and the documentarist are useful distinctions in supporting the growing distance between how the couple sees the world: one wants to record fragments of sounds and the other wants to read and interview. They are the chemist and the librarian, as the boy sees it. When the children take over, they scrap these distinctions, wishing instead to live their peers’ story, to document the undocumented they have learned about through the key fictional text, Elegies for Lost Children, an omniscient and mysterious account of a group of children trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States. Through their reenactment, the intersecting and truncated story lines of this novel meld at last into one simulated lived experience that makes it clear, if it wasn’t already, that we can never truly know another’s story.
Rather than dreaming of athletic pursuits, I strive to climb the mountains of big books. I wasn’t always this way—I took an English Language degree rather than the more straightforward Literature one so I wouldn’t have to take the Beowulf course; instead, I made trees of sentences and debated anachronistic readings of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. There is a new confidence that has risen up in me now (a quarantine confidence) that says you have time, you have skill, you have seriousness. Just fucking do it, the confidence says. And rather than writing a story based on The Odyssey for three years and only reading spin-off or critical material, I decided to do the right thing, the authentic thing, the hard thing. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize is that The Odyssey is easy!
You see, I didn’t read it in Greek; rather, I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation: “a responsible translation, and we should hardly hold it against him that it makes very enjoyable reading” (Introduction Carne-Ross 68). What also got me through was a social-distancing-driveway-drink mention to a friend, equal parts literary and hilarious, who recoiled as he was doing the same thing. So an impromptu Zoom Book Club was created, and I forced upon myself the role of reader and reviewer, and alas: an epic review for an epic poem.
My first question is perhaps an essential one of the time: how do the gods work? Gods want sacrifices, they can be negotiated with (fine, 12 bulls), they fight for hierarchy within themselves and meet in a lair at the top of a mountain…are they the mafia? Or could the “god’s favour”—i.e. which mortals they decide to listen to and support—be seen in contemporary light as privilege? Never mind questions of how much control do the gods have, or why do they choose to brandish it at some times and not at others (did they both destroy O’s ship and kill all his sailors, but also bring him home?), but maybe the greatest question of all is the one Odysseus would like an answer to as well: are the gods prophesying or deciding our future? Do they even know?
The Odyssey came after The Iliad, obviously, and was once called “The Iliad’s wife” (Samuel Butler). The story depicts a (long) journey home, through a world that has returned home faster—to the hospitality of civilized society, to the lounging around and getting nothing done—and the psychology of the time seems to be to trust entirely in the powers of the gods to make things right. With themes like healing and recovery, with many women characters, men weeping, storytelling about the war and grieving and honouring the dead, is this book just feminine in the same way that women are characterized? It seems too reductive, but as a sequel to a war tale, also somewhat true that the partnership here is not equal, that the second book is deferential to the first. That magical feeling as you read a well-built-world novel, where the story you are reading exists as the tip of the iceberg in a drama long-since-begun (my friend mentioned Star Wars Episode 4 as a reference), is strong here, but is also false: there was The Iliad, I just didn’t read it. So much of this wife poem is about glorifying her husband that it did make me ask what kind of knowledge the original audience of Homer’s oral poetry would have had? The Odyssey is known to be folk tales elevated to the heroic, but are some of these also historical events, real people commemorated? I think I know the answer is yes, but I repeat the question here because when I did first ask it I felt to be revealing something to myself, and now want to carry that sense of weighty intuition on to you. Who am I then, The Iliad’s niece?
There follows the obvious question of the role of women, and though I don’t want to ask it with a contemporary feminist lens, because why go there with something so obviously old and not aware of anything equality, I do think it is of interest particularly in this story and because of the fiction I want to write inspired by this poem. In Part Eleven, the section with my favourite title,“A Gathering of Shades,” Odysseus and his sailors descend to the underworld, or at least to the place where dead people sit around and tell their stories. “All the women I beheld there, daughters and wives of kings” approach Odysseus, and he is quick to ensure they form some kind of civilized line-up. One by one they name their connections to great men. By telling us, is Homer or whoever trying to honour them? Shame them? Odysseus notes them—notices them—but gives no opinion or emotion one way or the other. Was allowing them to be present and speak revolutionary in itself?
There are many other interactions with women that do cause Odysseus great emotion: he is kept hostage to the lovemaking and charm of first Kalypso and then Circe, but he craves throughout for his home, and his Penelope. Still, despite being beautiful, clever and well-behaved, Penelope is little more than a representation of home and of the normalcy it holds. Maybe the only touching detail that hints at the intimacy of their relationship is the description of the bedroom he built around an old olive tree, whose trunk he used as a bedpost, and “let it serve as model for the rest” (Book 13, Line 223-224); the couple uses this symbol as a secret sign that they are who they say they are, even though Odysseus is dressed as an old beggar. Disguise is used often in this poem, and generally orchestrated by Athena, whether on herself or on Odysseus. She is actually the agent of the whole plot of the book, the real hero behind Odysseus’s feats, but in the last last line, after arbitrating a peace deal, “still (Athena) kept the form and voice of Mentor” (Book 24, Line 614). She couldn’t wield that power unless she was a man! Could the translator here be inserting a more modern reading, or were the narrow and subservient expectations of women—as slaves, as faithful wives, as storytellers and hostesses—noticed, and perhaps even critiqued by Homer? Whether yes or no, it is structurally clear that women are not to possess their own narrative arc, as the suitors do, as Telemachus does, as even the swineherd does. They want something, they work to achieve it, they come out the other side one way or the other in a way that even as mighty a god as Athena is not permitted.
I came out the other side of The Odyssey. And on the other side lies, of course, a higher and more fraught mountain: Ulysses. I am fifteen pages in and fifteen shades darker into the underworld of my own specific hell. It comes down to the same reasons I chose English Language rather than Literature: in grammar there is reason-making and poetry. In some literature, like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I raced through on the bus in my undergraduate degree and from which I took nothing, I can be captivated enough by the art of things that I don’t get to the heart. I hope by writing these reviews, I might read Ulysses for more than just the trophy.
Democracy May Not Exist But We'll Miss It When It's Gone
by Astra Taylor
What is different about the way women run shit? At a women’s conference put on by my union, I was intent to pick out every space-making, leaned-in, inclusive gesture and label it. Without having attended too many conferences before where the intention was simply to bring people together and empower them, I had little to compare to. What stuck out was the flexibility and calm that came from not having too much to do, no one to answer to—it was like we were opening Pandora’s box and dancing in its contents.
Astra Taylor goes about exploring the question of democracy in much the same way. Rather than picking one side of the fight, she invites us into the dialectical scrimmage. Through interviews, research and personal reflection, we are led to experience something like the Carnival she references, a religious celebration from the Middle Ages where the people were encouraged to play act rebellion. She wishes to make a comparison to present-day elections, which she sees as a “safe expression of discontent”—an intentional move by the structures in power to “affirm the strength and permanence of the social hierarchy by appearing to defy it” (175).
At the women’s conference I was encouraged to think about the difference between activism and organizing, which is an important point of Taylor’s as well. While activism is temporary and visible, with the goal to boost team spirit and get people on board, organizing is longterm, ongoing, quiet; its goal is to build a committed practice that makes incremental change. The questions and thinking I was offered up in this book and that conference were not widely different than those offered by regular conferences, regular books, but something about them has been left ruminating within me. Through both I have been given the chance to explore at my own pace the polarizations that live within all of us and which Taylor uses to structure her chapters: inclusion/exclusion, coercion/choice, present/future, to name a few. And maybe that’s the difference in the conference, and the book, or anything run by thoughtful women whose goal is to organize: while in activism may lay answers, organizing opens up the eternal wonderer and that, for me, is being engaged.
Boy, Snow, Bird
by Helen Oyeyemi
As someone who tells their dreams, I do it because I am compelled to share the story-ness of them—the depth of detail, emotion, metaphor of my own imagination, so freely but perfectly arranged, amazes me. But as the story rolls out, some machine that is not me becomes evident and I realize I am not and never was in charge of it. The moving parts lay embarrassingly bare between mine and my listener’s feet and we look down at them, impressed, yes, but for different reasons.
Helen Oyeyemi’s voice is confessional; all her narrators are whispering in your ear, much in the way her character describes being whispered to—“Me and you, you and me, soft music that stops playing the moment you really begin to listen” (125). With fairy tales as source material, elements so familiar canonically and culturally to anyone reading that they take the shape of a dream, it is at times disorienting to follow Oyeyemi’s voice down the interlocking rabbit holes. I don’t know that I would want to map out Boy, Snow, Bird, or her 2011 novel Mr. Fox along the line of a story diagram. I would rather mind-map the idea that led whimsically to the next, breadcrumb after breadcumb into the forest and then the castle and then somewhere deeper—in this case, the mirror.
Boy, Snow, Bird plays with foils that take on costumes of family, race and gender. We are led into low fantasy (fantastical elements intruding into a realistic setting) through metaphorical language and tantalizing characters, situations and places so well described by it. Recently I discovered for myself Heather O’Neill’s prose; until I read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, I’d assumed the popularity of her work belied the literary nature of her novels. I was unaware prose this fantastic could take on such a popular appeal. Who was I undermining here? The readers, the authors, myself? “He seemed to think he’d caught me practicing being fascinating,” (21) says Oyeyemi. “They sounded like a necklace had been broken and all the pearls were falling on the ground,” (47) replies O’Neill.
I was equally impressed by Boy, Snow, Bird as I had before been by Mr. Fox, as I am every morning waking up from a whimsical slumber. Did I really just go there? And how did I get out?