Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Tag: Fiction (page 1 of 4)

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad Is a Fun Ironic Romp

Book Cover

Penelope Speaks

Margaret Atwood’s short novel The Penelopiad, a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope. With the help of the Twelve Maids, the story becomes a delightful romp. Atwood offers a quasi-Greek drama, with the narrative split between Penelope and the Twelve Maids, who serve as a chorus. Penelope’s voice is deeply ironic, which offers the reader a whole new perspective on the hero Odysseus and on Penelope herself as the archetypical faithful wife.

Characters and Irony

Atwood uses not only Homer’s Odyssey but also certain critical issues that surround that work, along with her own questions about Homer’s treatment of Penelope and the Twelve Maids, to mine the ancient material for a wide range of humorous possibilities. The son, Telemachus, is a spoiled brat. The faithful old servant, Eurycleia, is an interfering busybody, referred to as “the trusted cackle-hen.” The chorus of maids enters regularly, performing in a different genre each time—a rope-jumping rhyme, a lament, a popular tune, an idyll, a sea shanty, and so forth. And though Penelope maintains her iconic role as innocent and faithful wife throughout, the truth of her narrative is undercut by her own ironic tone and by various accusations made by the chorus along the way.

A View from Hades

One of the most enjoyable moves Atwood makes is to place Penelope in Hades while she tells the tale. The opening line of the book is “Now that I’m dead, I know everything.” This allows Atwood to make two additional narrative moves that add humorous layering to the tail. In Hades, Penelope meets various other characters from The Odyssey, including Helen, the cause of all Penelope’s troubles, one of the suitors slaughtered by Odysseus, and the Twelve Maids. Additionally, she narrates the story from current time, contemporary with the reader, a fact the reader only gradually becomes aware of, which allows her to make ironic comments about our times, her times, and times in between.

Vintage Atwood

For readers who are familiar with Homer’s Odyssey and who enjoy an ironic and iconoclastic voice, The Penelopiad will be a fun read. It’s quite different from Margaret Atwood’s better known and more serious work, but it’s vintage Atwood nonetheless.

Janelle Brown, Watch Me Disappear, a Gripping Read

Janelle Brown’s latest novel, Watch Me Disappeardue out July 11, is a gripping read. A mother’s disappearance while on a solo backpacking trip in the mountains of California devastates her husband and daughter. The narrative is beautifully imagined and intricately woven. The plot is driven by love, loss, and lies. Those three forces pull the characters in opposing directions, making them doubt everything they thought they knew. The father, Jonathan’s, love drives him to write a romanticized autobiography of his life with Billie, the lost wife. As events unfold, he begins to doubt that he ever knew her. The daughter, Olive’s, love causes her to see visions of her lost mother, calling Olive to find her. But she finds much more than she thinks she is looking for. The narrative of Watch Me Disappear is filled with unexpected turns that make the reader not want to put the novel down. And the surprises never stop coming. The characters are complex and sympathetically drawn, very real people with traits that make you love them and traits that make you hate them.

Janelle Brown’s writing is stunning. Beautiful descriptions, surprising images (“an ominous premonition spiders up the back of his neck”), pithy insights into human nature and the beauty and tragedy of life. An old woman who answers the door: “Her hand is papery and porcelain-thin on Olive’s own.” Descriptions that make your skin crawl: “He left an impression of stubble and flannel and stringy unkempt hair, and a sharp smell, something itchy and intense oozing from his pores.” At times the language itself creates a moment of comic relief: “As Isaac tongued her molars, Olive kept visualizing the slides of amoeba they were studying in her biology class–his germy pseudopods spelunking in her mouth.”

Watch Me Disappear is an engaging and rewarding read.

 

 

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Dan Chaon’s novel Ill Will Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Dan Chaon‘s book Ill Will is a beautifully written, dark, at times almost lyric portrayal of a man’s struggle to discern what is real and to confront his past. He is a therapist who grew up with a disturbed, abusive older adoptive brother, and whose parents were brutally murdered when he was a teenager. https://s3.amazonaws.com/netgalley-covers/cover99566-medium.png

Chaon’s novel follows two plot lines, the disintegration of the therapist’s own family after his wife dies, and the bizarre investigation by the therapist and one of his patients of a series of deaths. Told from multiple points of view and shifting frequently between past and present, the narrative is complex and engaging. It moves toward its conclusion driven by the inescapable, inexorable power of the past to control the present. The characters’ journeys are downward spirals right from the beginning.

Chaon offers a dark, almost despairing view of human nature. This book is not for the faint of heart.

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