Monday, July 2, 2007

Book Review: "Ithaka" by Adele Geras

After enjoying Adele Geras' earlier novel, "Troy" - a female-centric "alternative" depiction of the Trojan War - I finally had a chance to sit down with "Ithaka", her reinterpretation of "The Odyssey", following the same line of inverting the traditional focus of Homer's stories: rather than follow Odysseus on his fantastic journey, Geras' entire novel is set on Ithaka, focusing on the women left behind to fend for themselves while their king is away. However, this particular book turned out to be much more uneven than its predecessor.

On a technical level, "Ithaka" shows Geras applying some interesting devices. For example, one recurring sequence features Penelope weaving images drawn from her dreams. What she doesn't know is that her threadwork is actually telling the story of the Odyssey, snapshots of her husband's encounters with the Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Calypso and so on. It's actually very effective if you're familiar with the source material, because you realize that Odysseus is getting closer and closer to Ithaka. Geras also makes the occasional aside into the mind of Argos, Odysseus' ancient hunting dog, whose thoughts are presented in a stream-of-consciousness narrative that stresses the neverending cycle of day and night as Argos waits for his master to return.

But Geras' techniques can't quite cover up the true failure of "Ithaka": an astonishing lack of depth. I say astonishing because, for all that the main protagonists of "Troy" (Xanthe and Marpessa) were naive girls, their hopelessly limited perspectives were balanced out by characters such as the kitchen gossips and Helen, whose interpretations of the events around them were decidedly different (and, arguably, more informed). In this book, there's no font of wisdom to counter protagonist Klymene's overwhelming naivete; her twin brother is an invisible cipher whose ultimate fate is kind of moot, given that he's never around anyway, and her only real foil is Melantho, an over-the-top hoochie who goes out of her way to pony-ride every guy she can grab. She's a Chuck Austen character. If she were living in the 21st century she'd be a pop princess and "unwitting" participant in a sex tape scandal. In fact, Melantho is a perfect microcosm of what's wrong with the entire cast of "Ithaka" - they're so exaggerated, so blown out of proportion that we just can't take them seriously. And it's a dismaying step down from "Troy", where even the most cartoonish characters had some degree of depth to them (ie: the obnoxious Boros and his shockingly heroic attempt to save Xanthe when the Greeks invade).

And because the characters are so flat, there's very little emotional resonance here. Geras only allows us access to the inner thoughts of Klymene and Penelope, with everyone else seen through their eyes, but at the same time the events of "The Odyssey" (which are, after all, still unfolding in this narrative despite the alternative point of view) are affecting everyone. Why should we care about Telemachus if we can't get into his head? How can we be invested in Klymene's relationship with Mydon when we only ever see her side of it?

In fact, this restriction deeply undermines Geras' one major change to the story of "The Odyssey" - she rewrites the character of Leodes as a love interest for Penelope. They become involved even as Odysseus makes his way home, to the point where Penelope is almost convinced to just run away with him and leave Ithaka behind. Now, from a modernist/feminist angle, what Geras does makes sense. Penelope is, after all, probably the biggest doormat in Greek mythology, defined by her unbreakable fidelity to a husband who's humping every woman, demigoddess and inflatable dryad who crosses his path. I can certainly see why women writers, especially today's women writers, would be reluctant to follow Homer's lead quite that closely. And indeed, Geras completely breaks down the supposedly-happy ending of "The Odyssey", because even as Odysseus gets everything he wanted, including a wife who (he thinks) has remained exactly as he left her, Penelope will never really be as happy as she once was; robbed of her ability to make her own choice, she'll forever remain locked in an internal conflict that can't be resolved.

That's a poignant conclusion. Or it would be, if we had any real sense of the love Leodes and Penelope share. For us as readers, there's never any real doubt that Odysseus won't come home to reclaim his family and kingdom; Geras knows we're "in on the joke", and tries to take it further by creating this relationship that we know is doomed, but the characters don't. It might have worked if Leodes had been better-defined; as it stands, the only thing you really know about him in 350 pages is that he loves Penelope and that he's probably the only suitor on Ithaka who isn't a complete bastard. That doesn't make for powerful drama.

I also think Geras missed an opportunity to tie this book in with her earlier novel, as one of the supporting characters introduced at a later stage is a survivor of the Trojan War. This would've been a great oppportunity to revisit, even in passing, those characters from "Troy" whose fates were left uncertain. In fact, Homer used that exact type of intertextuality in the original epic; one of Telemachus' voyages takes him to Sparta, where he learns what became of Helen after the Greeks reclaimed her (referring to "The Iliad").

As with "Troy", the gods of Olympus appear throughout "Ithaka". However, this time they're active participants; characters see and remember them, and they even physically involve themselves at key moments in the story. On the one hand, this is preferable to how they were written in "Troy" - a god would appear and offer important information to a privileged character, only to be forgotten moments later. It made them completely useless because nothing they said affected the course of events or gave any insight into characters' motives and desires. On the other hand, when directly intervening, the gods end up deflating tense moments prematurely. For example, when Odysseus finally leads an attack against the suitors, Pallas Athene informs Penelope (and the readers) that a certain character is going to die, moments before it actually happens in what would normally be considered a surprise twist. Except it's obviously not much of a twist since we knew it was coming. Similarly, Poseidon makes some threatening comments early on, only to disappear completely in the second half of the novel, but it's enough to give away the fates of several characters.

Overall, it's a very clumsy effort on Adele Geras' part, and I honestly don't know how to reconcile this with "Troy" at all. It's a below-average novel on its own, but looks all the poorer in comparison to its predecessor.