Saturday, May 03, 2008

Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips (2007)

I've been reading Marie's blog for years: back before she became famous, I think I even linked to her private blog in my blogroll, but when she did become famous, her blog was closed to randoms such as myself and replaced with a less personal one. She is one of my earlier blog crushes (not because she looks good, because we can't normally appreciate such aspects of our fellow bloggers and so it is only recently I have become acquainted with her appearance): funny, smart, warm and "real".

I knew she was writing but didn't really know what, again until recently. Then I started reading bits and pieces about her book on other people's blogs (and a pretty good backstory in the Telegraph) and had to get a copy: luckily, the Waikouaiti Library could oblige. There is a Youtube video of the author telling us herself about her book here.

Funnily enough, a footnote to Alexander Pope's Dunciad is as good a place as any to view this book from. It reminded me that with the fall of man, the ancient Gods (Zeus, Aphrodite, Artemis, Dionysus, Eros, Hermes, Apollo, Athena and the rest) decided that they'd leave earth to the mortals, as being undeserving of the gods. In Gods Behaving Badly, they're all still on earth, living dysfunctionally in a rundown north London house. They're pretty much unknown in modern London - partly because Jesus and the Christian God have displaced them, but mainly because people just aren't into gods these days. This lack of support from mortals is the reason the gods lack power, not that the gods know it, despite the best efforts of Athena (goddess of wisdom) to tell them (she speaks in a particular form of incomprehensible business-speak - I'm surprised there were no "going forwards".)

So they're making a living as best they can: Aphrodite has a phone-sex business, Dionysus is running a seedy pub and is a DJ, Apollo is trying to make it as a TV psychic and Artemis is a dog walker. The novel in facts start with her: she's out walking dogs when she encounters a tree where no tree had previously been:
She reminded herself not to get angry with the tree, that it wasn't the tree's fault. Then she spoke.
"Hello," she said.
There was a long silence.
"Hello," said Artemis again.
"Are you talking to me?" said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.
"Yes," said Artemis. "I am Artemis." If the tree experienced any recognition, it didn't show it. "I'm the goddess of hunting and chastity."
Another silence.
Then the tree said, "I'm Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs."
"Do you know what happened to you, Kate?" said Artemis.The longest silence of all.
"I think I've turned into a tree," it said.
"Yes," said Artemis. "You have."
"Thank God for that," said the tree. "I thought I was going mad." Then the tree seemed to reconsider this. "Actually," it said, "I think I would rather be mad." Then, with hope in its voice, "Are you sure I haven't gone mad?"
"I'm sure," said Artemis. "You're a tree. A eucalyptus. Subgenus of mallee. Variegated leaves."

This is Apollo's doing: feeling slighted because Kate wouldn't sleep with him, he turned her into a tree. No anger management and a complete sense of entitlement.

Into this come two mortals, Alice and Neil. They're in love with each other without ever being able to declare it, so have spent years in a kind of relationship limbo, playing scrabble and other innocuous activities. Aphrodites engineers it: she's in a snit with Apollo and so has a spell cast; he is to fall in love with the next person he sees i.e. Alice. Supposedly, she is also supposed to be magicced into hating him, but Eros (who has become a Christian) doesn't have the heart for it. So, Alice is brought into Apollo's house (as a humble cleaner) and he does his best to woo her. But when he can't, his anger gets the better of him: she must die. For reasons I won't go into, he then has to apologise to Neil but, well, to be a genuine apology, he has to make it clear why he's apologising: Neil can't get why he'd be apologising for Alice's death when she was struck by lightning. The fun in all this is that Neil is this weedy wee guy who's never had the balls to tell Alice he loves her, yet he has to call Apollo out on his half-hearted apology. He does so so successfully that Apollo needs to demonstrate his power: he stops the sun.

All of this leads to Artemis and Neil taking off so they can sneak into the underworld (accessed via Angel tube station in Islington and portrayed as endless suburban mock-Tudor mansions) on a mission to retrieve Alice and confront Styx and Hades to see if they can help get the sun put back on. To be successful, Neil has to be a hero, so when he meets Styx and realises he can't lie about not being dead:
"I am a hero," he said eventually, hoping that this was a category that transcended notions of dead or alive.
The river raised an eyebrow. "you are most unlike any hero who has visited me before," she said.
"It was an emergency,"...
But he shows the qualities necessary for a hero on this mission: he might not be able to beat Cerberus in a fight, but his years of playing word games and his niceness ("It is what I am best at") equip him well to deal with Styx and have her agree to help him. The same qualities help out when he has his meeting with Hades. He's the kind of hero I can relate to.

Oh, and here's the author - I said she was good looking:



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