Friday, February 7, 2014

A Review of "xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths"

Over the holidays, I acquired a copy of the new anthology xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, which I purchased for two reasons: "The Status of Myth" by Kelly Braffet and Owen King, and "Lost Lake" by Emma Straub and Peter Straub.

Now, I need to confess something.  I may have mentioned it before at some point; apologies if you've already heard it, but it's an important point for me to make up front.  Or at least, it seems important to me, so let's roll with it.

The point is this: I am terrible at reading anthologies.  I don't buy a huge number of them.  In fact, I tend only to buy them if one of my favorite authors has a story in it.  And then, I am awful -- just absolutely awful, ya ken -- about ignoring all the other stories and only reading the ones written by authors I already like and read regularly.  This always makes me feel like a dick.  Always, always, always.  Not only because it feels -- and is -- insulting to the authors whose work I'm skipping out on, but also because you've got to figure that I'm missing out on some stories I'd like, maybe even love.

The real problem is one of time: I just don't have as much of it as I wish I had.  Who does?  Nobody I know.  But because of that, it has caused me to become extremely selective in terms of my reading habits over the last decade or so.  That bums me out.  In a perfect world, I'd read everything, by everyone.  This isn't that world, though, so I find myself severely behind the times when it comes to reading.  The same thing is beginning to happen with movies, and happened long ago with music and television.  The sad fact is that the older I get, the less I'm able to be a generalist; I'm forced into being a specialist when it comes to my hobbies.

It bums me out, but what can a body do?

A body can do this: resolve to, at the very least, put an end to the trend of only reading one or two stories out of anthologies I purchase.  From now on, if I buy one, I'm reading the whole thing.

I started that resolution with xo Orpheus.  How'd it work out?

Pretty dang good.  Read on for details.

The concept of the anthology is based on the idea that humanity has entered an Age of Anthropocene, an epoch in which humanity has had an unprecedented effect on its environments.  Not necessarily a good one; not entirely a bad one, either, though.  Anyways, the upshot of it, according to editor Kate Bernheimer in her introduction, is that in a great many ways, WE are now the gods.  If we are having that huge a hand in our own development, what does "myth" mean?  Surely it can't mean the same thing it meant even a few hundred years ago.  Right?

We'll all have our own opinions on that subject.  Bernheimer's belief seems to be that we are in a transitional phase, one in which we have not yet entirely given up our old belief systems, but are in the slow process of doing so.  I'd tend to agree with her.  This may hypothetically enrage you.  If so, my apologies; no offense is intended, but I also don't feel the need to be shy and/or coy on my own blog.  We'll have to agree to be okay with that.

Bernheimer also feels as if there is also a process by which we are saying goodbye "to the old relationship of literature and myth, of myth to the human."  This, I do not agree with.  I think the desire to mythologize is ingrained, universal, and unlikely to go away until we essentially cease being humans and evolve into some other form.  When I say "mythologize," what I mean is nothing more (or less) complicated than the process of using storytelling to create a view of, and an understanding of, the world.  And -- this is important -- doing so in a fashion that can be consumed by others and passed down to future generations.  If Bernheimer is correct, and the relationship "of myth to the human" is -- even slowly -- changing, then surely we should be seeing less mythology, rather than more of it.

I don't think we are, though.  If anything, our fiction -- prose, cinema, television, etc. -- is becoming more prone to mythology.  The key difference, I'd argue, is only that we, as a culture, are knowingly creating mythologies that are outright fiction.  Presumably, this was mostly not the case with the Greek and Norse mythologies, or the Egyptian, etc.  When whoever it was who created the story of Cronos did so, it was -- again, presumably -- at least a semi-honest effort to explain something about the way the universe worked.

You can't say that the guy who created the story of Walter White.

Or can you?  I'm suddenly less convinced, which only serves to make my argument -- that we have by no means outgrown myth-making -- the stronger.  Hey, you know, there's a reason James Bond and Doctor Who have been around for decades; we obviously need them for something.  You can argue that we need them purely for entertainment if you like, but I think the evidence is maybe not entirely going to be in your favor in that argument.

Whatever.  I guess that what I'm saying here is that I find Bernheimer's hypothesis to be fundamentally flawed.  The result of that ought to be that xo Orpheus is a failure, but I don't think it is at all.  In fact, I think the stories themselves end up -- as a group -- being so conflicted about the theme that it actually makes the reader stay mindful of the core idea throughout.  At least, that was the case for me.  Your mileage may vary.

There are a whopping fifty stories here (I didn't actually count them, but am instead assuming the title wouldn't have the balls to lie about it), so I'm not going to cover them each.  Instead, I'll briefly hit a few of what I perceived to be the high points.  Those include:

"The Sisters," by Sabina Murray:  This takes on the idea of the Bacchantes, and transposes elements of those wonderful, horrible ladies onto a tale of an elderly literature professor trying to determine what happened to a former student who took up an internship with a society of women devoted to Emily Dickinson studies.  Good stuff.

It's a twofer!  This is Orpheus and the Bacchantes by Gregorio Lazzarini.

"Modern Coyote," by Shane Jones:  A modernized coyote myth, in which a new father has some unexpected family issues.  One of the strong elements of xo Orpheus is that it is more than happy to go farther than your standard Greek and Norse mythologies; having stuff like the Native American coyote myths is quite agreeable.

"Devourings," by Aimee Bender:  Say, did I mention Cronos earlier?  Well, he's represented here in a funny, sad, and decidedly un-Shrek tale of a human woman who marries an ogre.  Things go well until they don't.

Goya's still-horrifying depiction of Cronus/Cronos/Saturn eating his children

"Labyrinth," by Ron Currie, Jr.:  A decidedly odd story, both in terms of its point of view and its story, this is the tale of a war veteran who decides to build a labyrinth.  Not much like the one Daedalus was associated with, but no less hurtful.

"Galatea," by Madeline Miller:  This one tackles the story of Galatea and Pygmalion from Galatea's point of view, and is really pretty damn great.  It has what might be my favorite ending of any story in the collection.

"The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun," by Ben Loory:  A kinda/sorta take on the kraken myth, this whimsical story is perhaps the most unlikely piece of science fiction I have ever read.  I can't even bear the thought of telling you what happens.

"Drona's Death," by Max Gladstone:  This is what appears to be a straight-forward retelling of a section of the Mahābhārata, which good old Google informs me is one of two major Sanskrit epics from Indian mythological tradition.  Look, I'm no expert in that sort of thing.  To be honest, I didn't even know it existed.  But if "Drona's Death" is any indication, the Mahābhārata is bad-ass.  The story is about a war between heaven and earth (I think) and the role an elephant plays in the resolution of one battle.  Pretty great.  I think I need to look into this one a bit deeper at some point.

Arjuna_and_His_Charioteer_Krishna_Confront_Karna (is what this is allegedly called, probably without all the underscores)

"The Status of Myth," by Kelly Braffet and Owen King:  The authors list "Edith Hamilton's Mythology" as the departure point for their story, which is actually a mini-anthology of its own, telling seven mini-tales that each recast various tales from Greek/Roman mythology in some way.  I won't mention which ones.  I dug the hell out of this story, though; I bought the book 50% due to this very story, and I felt like it was good enough to have made the purchase worthwhile even without taking all the other stories into account.  It can be read here, incidentally, so give it a look.

I've got a copy of this edition, and it looks even worse than the copy scanned for this photo.

"Narcissus," by Zachary Mason:  Wherein Narcissus is a Oscar Wilde-style wit.  His relationship with Echo goes pretty well until it doesn't.

"The Brigadier-General Takes His Final Stand, by James Butt," by Imad Rahman:  This one proceeds from Oedipus, and is about an exiled dictator living in an economy hotel.  Someone he wronged may or may not be about to exact some vengeance.  Much more Walmart than I might have expected.  Great stuff.

"Dark Resort," by Heidi Julavita:  Taking on Orpheus and Eurydice in an unexpected way, this is far and away one of the darkest stories in the book.  "Let's assume there's a man on a beach because there is," it begins, and that's what it's like; but that doesn't tell you much unless you've already read it.  So go read it, you scamps.

"Lost Lake," by Emma Straub and Peter Straub:  So, it turns out that the second 50% of the reason I bought this book is also pretty delightful.  If "delightful" is the right word to use in association with a retelling of the Persephone myth.  It probably isn't.  In "Lost Lake," a child of divorce shuttles back and forth between her father's world and her mother's world via train, twice per year.  But the time is coming for her to decide permanently which world she prefers.  (Aside the first: The train setting gave me a few mild flashbacks to the elder Straub's novel Shadowland, which is fine by me.)  (Aside the second: At some point, I need to find a good excuse to talk about the younger Straub's two books, the excellent story collection Other People We Married and the excellent novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures.  Both are well worth reading.)

"What Wants My Son," by Kevin Wilson:  Which asks, what if the story of Phaeton occurred in a setting that included Sbarro?  Wry and surprisingly effective.

"Belle-Medusa," by Manuela Draeger:  I don't even know what to say here.  This story pre-existed the collection, and it is not based on a myth; it is listed as exemplifying "Post-Apocalypse," which I suppose I can let skate as myth.  In any case, this is translated from the original French, and is evidently written by a fictional character, who exists in the stories of an author named Antoine Volodine, which is itself a pseudonym for an unknown author.  I honestly wouldn't have a clue how to describe "Belle-Medusa," so I won;t even try, except to say that what it reminds me of -- if it reminds me of anything -- is the short fiction of Cordwainer Smith.  Smith wrote bizarre sci-fi in a previous century; Volodine appears to be doing it in this one.  Whoever Volodine is.  This might have been my favorite story in the book; while reading it , I had an idea for a story of my own, and got up in the middle of it and dashed off about 1100 words.  Will I do anything with it?  Probably not.  But I think the mere fact that it made me, as it were, horny to write a bit of fiction says something about "Belle-Medusa."

"The Swan's Wife," by Aamer Hussein:  Which is a take on the Raja Rasalu tale.  I do not know what that is.  But I liked this story a lot, despite it hitting a little uncomfortably close to home in its tale of a guy who probably ought to just let that girl go.

"Betrayal," by Sigrid Nunez:  Tackling the theme of transformation moreso than a specific myth, this story is nevertheless one of the most mythlike of all the stories in the book.  No, I cannot explain what I mean by that; kindly do a brother a favor and don't ask.  It's the story of a chance meeting between two women on a train, which develops into something else.

"The White Horse," by Sarah Blackman:  This one has echoes of Zeus and Europa, and is about a horse that falls in love with a baby.  This story bummed me out a bit, which was probably the correct response.


I've listed nearly twenty stories from xo Orpheus that I would say I thoroughly enjoyed.  Of the remaining thirty-plus, there are plenty that I also appreciated and/or liked.  There were also a few that I didn't get much out of; one or two I found to be downright impenetrable.

Overall, though, I found it to be an extremely worthwhile book, and I would definitely recommend it.

It also got me to thinking about a story I wrote -- or, to be accurate, began writing (I never finished it) -- in a creative writing class some sixteen or so years ago.  It, too, dealt in myth, albeit in a somewhat naive and juvenile fashion.  Not entirely naive and juvenile, though; I was swinging for the fences with it, and it there was a single reason why I never finished it other than sheer laziness, that reason would be that the idea was simply too big.

It was called "Rest Home of the Gods," and posited the conceit that when humans stop believing in their deities, the deities are whisked away by some unknown and unseen celestial force to a huge, placid land where they all reside, living in massive mansions.  So all the Greek deities live in a huge mansion, and up the street live all the Norse deities.  And so forth.

Anyways, the story began with Jehovah, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Satan all suddenly finding themselves standing at a sort of new-arrivals crossroads.  Jesus was the point-of-view character, and the story was about his struggle to come to grips with this bizarre place in which he found himself living.

I always liked the concept, and found what I thought were some interesting angles to examine various things like the similarities between the story of Jesus and the story of Balder.  One of my favorite ideas was that the Greek deities lived right across the street from the Roman deities, and some of them were basically identical twins (Zeus and Jupiter, for example).

What really drew me to the story, though, was the idea that this huge community existed on the shores of an even huger sea, which bordered it on one side; the other side was bordered by a massive forest.  None of the residents ever explored the forest, nor did they ever attempt to sail to the other side of the sea.  There were reasons for this, but I wanted to hint at them more than I wanted to spell them right out.

All I know is this: if I ever revisit that story, I'm definitely going to have L. Ron Hubbard living by himself, possibly walking around trying to convert Jesus and Apollo and Freyja to Scientology.  That'd be pretty cool.

That's enough about me and my goofy long-dormant fiction ideas, though.  I highly recommend xo Orpheus, and if any of you get a copy, drop back by here and let me know what some of your favorite stories are.

Next time, I'll be reviewing Joe Hill's new-ish short story, "Wolverton Station."


  1. That old story of yours sounds really cool. What a fun idea. I like the structure of it, and especially the idea of the Greek/Roman gods being across the street from one another.

    I would be very curious to see which of the old gods L Ron could convert to Scientology; that's definitely an idea with legs, my friend.

    Jesus/ Balder/ Osiris - funny how these guys are all so similar, isn't it...! Reminds me of Hamlet's Mill (a fantastic book) or Fingerprints of the Gods (equally fantastic, and one which utilizes Hamlet's Mill in a fascinating way.) Or The Power of Mythology / Hero With a Thousand Faces by Campbell. All of these books I find endlessly compelling. For those reasons, I thought I'd adore American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but I've never been able to finish it. It's on that mental shelf in my head with The Talisman/ Black House. Some vacation / block of rainy-days of the future will see me wiping out all 3 books, mark my words.

    I have an ongoing love affair with the Bhagavad Gita (where that Arjuna/ Krishna is told.) What a fantastic picture. Actually, all of these paintings/ tapestries/ pictures are fantastic. At the risk of sounding like Bill and Ted, fine art is most excellent and a fine thing to look at first thing this frigid Friday morning.

    Edith Hamilton's Mythology (and Ovid's Metamorphoses) are indispensable references and have given me much joy over the years.

    Crikey, I haven't even gotten to the meat of your post and just keeping talking about myth books I love, but while we're here... Nigel Frith's Asgard is one that's been staring at me lately. I've got a few other reading projects going on at the moment, but I might make room for that. Maybe this will kick off a big myth-reading phase. I can think of worse ways to pass a few months. "If I wasn't out there battling the white man everyday, I could spend the rest of my life just reading." (you and me both, Malcolm X... add Kronos and the Midgard Serpent to my list of adversaries, too)

    Outside of Owen and Kelly and the Straubs, I don't recognize any of these authors, alas. Some of these descriptions sound really cool. Thanks for the heads-up.

    As for the Age of Anthropocene, my mind immediately goes to Battlestar. All of this has happened before and will happen again.

    1. Previously on Battlestar Galactica... (tink-tink-de-tinka-tink-a...DUM!)

      I could very, very easily find myself going into an obsessed-with-mythology-books phase. When I was a kid, I probably read the books about Greek and Norse myths by the D'Aulaires a gajillion times. The school librarian had to roll her eyes when she saw me coming with those.

      Is that an actual Malcolm X quotation?!? If so, that may be my new all-time favorite thing anyone has ever said.

      The only other author in the anthology who I had heard of was Brian Aldiss. But that's not atypical. In a perfect world, I'd have bought about three dozen books by some of these folks not long after finishing these stories.

    2. Oh, I missed Brian Aldiss among the authors, my bad. I'm definitely familiar with him, though only via A.I. That led me to picking up "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," though.

      It is indeed a real Malcolm X quote. Years ago when I was attending the University of Rhode Island, the library added the non-battling-the-white-man part of that quote to the wall and people went nuts. The Black Student Union was mad they didn't do the whole quote, others were mad they included any part of such a quote, and the rest (including myself) shrugged.

      I've never read any of the D'Aulaires. Just looked them up, tho, and I may have to spend a little money this afternoon...

    3. Yeah, me too; I've got their book of Greek myths, but not the Norse. Need to rectify that.

      Speaking of Malcolm X, one of my favorite memories is of going to see the Spike Lee movie on opening night with two of my friends, all three of us white as receipt paper. We were the only white folk there. It was awesome. Great movie, too; Denzel was ROBBED by the Oscars that year.

  2. Wow. I just read this for the first time.

    This sounds like a very interesting book. I can't say I believe in Bernheimer's theory of Anthropocene. However it does remind me of something from two books by a friend of Tolkien's (yes, seriously) named Owen Barfield. He posited that the mind is evolving, that evolution has quite literally gone mental. The difference is, people remain people and not gods, however the mind is heading toward some kind of evolutionary consummation. Two books that anyone can feel free to check out from him are Poetic Diction and Speaker's Meaning.

    I also agree that we haven't outgrown the myth-making impulse, and that's more or less what those Barfield books are about (plus, Friend of effing Tolkien!!!). After reading this, I really do recommend Neil Gaiman's oeuvre, as the great theme of all his work seems to be the nature of belief, and how ultimately we seem bounded by them in various ways (in particular American Gods (also Good Omens).

    I want to say I have a copy of Hamilton's mythology, but all I've found is an edition by Robert Graves. It's very funny finding this review after impulse purchasing a non-fiction coffee book called Alan Moore: Storyteller, along with another lit.crit. book by Graves called The White Goddess. And yes, Barfield's Poetic Diction did influence Tolkien, and that probably includes Rings. Both books ultimately are about the nature of the imagination, and man's relation to it. I think the same could be said about this book under review.

    I think I'll just leave off with this hopefully relevant David Bowie vid (with sets, costumes, and possibly even animation done by Jim Henson):


    1. Hah! I thought about putting a poster for Labyrinth in the post in the relevant position. Amazingly, I've still never actually seen that movie.

      Those Barfield books sound pretty cool, and definitely relevant to the issue at hand. Describing "xo Orpheus" as being about the nature of the imagination is probably fair.

      The Anthropocene idea is not Bernheimer's invention, by the way; it's evidently a growing idea among some scientists. Hopefully I didn't misrepresent it too badly here.