Sunday, 10 June 2012

Prizewinner Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

You can tell a lot about a culture by the way it responds to the story of Achilles and Patroclus. The ultimate were they/weren't they? of Greek mythology, the evidence is so vague and the sources are so contradictory that readers find themselves in the pleasant position of being able to pick and choose the hints that suit their own moral universe.

In the roughly one frillion translations and adaptations of the Iliad there have been over the years, Achilles and Patroclus have been reimagined as (with varying degrees of offensiveness) asexual warriors, manly manly impregnation machines, just good friends, good friends with benefits, each other's One True Love and card-carrying members of NAMBLA. What they really were - well, that's anyone's guess.

I'm of the school of thought that says that they probably did sleep together, but also slept with other people - and who cares, anyway? It's incredibly anachronistic and slightly dull-witted to assume that people have always been gay, straight or bisexual in the way we understand those concepts in 2012. I suppose making Achilles and Patroclus unambiguously gay might come closer to the original state of affairs than making them rampagingly homophobic lady-pleasurers, but it's important to remember that neither of those artistic choices is right.

It's also important to remember that how writers choose to represent the boys from Troy is due in large part to the atmosphere they're writing in, and so it's both inevitable and pleasant that, when gay marriage is legal in six US states (and getting close to legal in many more) and the President himself has decided to publically declare it A Good Thing, a book by an American writer all about the True and Very Sexy Love Story of Achilles and Patroclus has just won the 2012 Orange Prize.

The Song of Achilles is the first novel from writer Madeline Miller, who read Classics at university and then taught it, and how to adapt it for modern-day audiences, for ten years (TEN YEARS!) while writing her magnum opus on the side. With that background, and that time-scale, I was expecting serious literary fireworks, an entirely new interpretation of the old story to match what Zachary Mason managed last year with his brilliant take on the Odyssey. Add to that the fact that I'd just finished Fire from Heaven, the first in Mary Renault's trilogy of books about Alexander the Great (hands down the best thing I've read all year, but more on that later) and it's not entirely surprising that the reality of The Song of Achilles failed to match up to my hopes for it.

I do have to give Miller points for some of her storytelling choices. There's been a recent trend towards grittifying Classical myth, crossing out all those troublesome Baroque gods in order to tell the 'real', unvarnished story underneath (this usually boils down to a lot of men rolling about in the dirt and bleeding). Miller's Achilles, though, has a full complement of gods, godlings and miscellaneous others (Thetis, Apollo, Aphrodite and Scamander all represent), and ancient Greek magical beliefs run riot through it. If someone says they're a child of a god, they literally are; sacrifices actually work; plagues really are brought on by deitic displeasure and there's a centaur who lives in a pink cave in the mountains. It's nice to see someone going back to the unreality of the original texts, and in this respect the book works. Possibly as the inevitable consequence of this, though, the result feels like nothing more than a fairly straight-up rehash of the familiar story, told in Patroclus' voice and with the (arguably already present) homosexual subtext pumped up into a fully tricked-out plot.

One Million Moms would disapprove
Ah yes, that love story. Well. If you desire even vague ambiguity in your romance, you will not find it here. After a decent period of adolescent soul-searching on both sides, Achilles and Patroclus leap into bed together with wild abandon and proceed, with one brief exception, to remain pure and true to each other for ever and ever, amen. And who am I to question Miller's choices in the matter? As interpretations go, it's no more or less silly than many of the others I've read. What it isn't, though, is new, in any way, shape or form - and that, for me, is problematic in a book that's been marketed as a completely groundbreaking take on the old myth. Not only have scholars been entertaining this possibility for years, but even the most cursory trawl of the internet will reveal hundreds of works, of varying degrees of explicitness, all dedicated to exploring the concept of how the story of the Iliad would go if Achilles and Patroclus had actually been sleeping together.

Maybe it was unfortunate that I made that link, because The Song of Achilles started to feel to me like nothing more than a piece of well-crafted but unexceptional fanfiction. It has that fanfiction air of earnest world-bending emotional wish-fulfillment, where likelihood is sacrificed on the altar of the beautiful idea. There's a moment, for example, when Achilles claims Briseis as his prize (because Patroclus wants her to be Achilles' beard - the situation is ALREADY getting silly), and to reassure her that her chastity will not be in any doubt Patroclus and Achilles make out in front of her. Really. This happens.

I'm not sure I actually have the right to be annoyed by this. After all, Miller has two Classics degrees more than I have, so she surely must know what she is talking about. But The Song of Achilles doesn't often feel like a book written by someone with any kind of special scholarly insight into its world. While at least it doesn't suffer from godawful over-description of authentic pottery and medicines and so on, I think it almost goes too far the other way. The book is all about plot (and EMOTION) rather than local colour, and I realise I sort of miss historical geekery when it's gone.

Greeks baring hips
In fact, I don't think this is a book for Classics geeks at all. It's Iliad 101, a perfectly accessible and competently-written introduction to the story and its characters, but without either depth or fireworks. With one or two exceptions (most notably, the casual aside which mentions that Achilles is older than Patroclus, which is unfortunately just COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY WRONG), Miller does have a good handle on her material, and I think The Song of Achilles will make the story of the Trojan War interesting to a large new group of people. You can't really argue with that as an achievement, but - couldn't there have been something more?

I came to The Song of Achilles expecting to be overwhelmed. In the event, I'm not sure I could even describe myself as whelmed. A perfectly sweet if somewhat unrealistically presented romance plot and a capable retelling of a favourite story, overall this felt... unexceptional. After such a score with the choice of The Tiger's Wife last year, surely the Orange Prize judges could have done better this time around?

3 stars.

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