Friday, July 27, 2012

Perhaps Such Things Pass for Virtue Among the Gods

I just finished reading Madeline Miller's novel The Song of Achilles (Ecco / Harper, 2012), which I'd picked up after Band of Thebes mentioned it.  I had second thoughts after BoT followed up by dissing the book severely, but by the time my library hold came through I'd decided to give the book a chance.  It turned out to be worth it -- not a great novel, but a good one.  Unlike BoT I had no complaints about the book's style, and unlike Daniel Mendelsohn I thought its "tone" was fine.

The Song of Achilles is narrated by Patroclus, the beloved friend of the Homeric hero Achilles.  The Iliad is not explicit that the two were boyfriends, but later generations of Greeks assumed they were, though they apparently spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was the top and who was the bottom.  Patroclus was the older of the two, so by later custom he should have been the erastes, but he wasn't a warrior, and "perform[ed] duties such as cooking, feeding and grooming the horses, and nursing."  Miller doesn't take a position on this vital issue, which might be why gay men like BoT and Mendelsohn found her version wanting.

Style, especially for dialogue, in historical fiction is always a difficulty.  Miller goes with the rather stilted and formal diction common to the genre, but she seems comfortable with it and makes it work.  I liked her characterization of the two boys.  Patroclus is not macho, not a warrior, which is apparently not at odds with his depiction in the Iliad.  (I've read the Odyssey, but not the Iliad.  Gotta fix that soon.)  We see Achilles entirely through Patroclus' eyes, which are loving but not uncritical.  The Song of Achilles isn't a naturalistic story: the gods, particularly Achilles mother Thetis, are real and present, so Achilles is more than a man: the best of the Greeks, charismatic, a natural warrior.  But he's also proud and ruthless.

Numerous male readers have complained that Miller, being a girl, doesn't and maybe can't understand the warrior mind, and they claim that she has written a dopey romance.  I'd put this down to mere homophobia, and in many cases it surely is, but Band of Thebes and Daniel Mendelsohn are gay men, so there must be a different explanation in their case.  I think a certain misogyny is at work here; I also suspect that the book's jaundiced view of war may be a factor.  I didn't think Miller overdid the emotion (the boys' relationship "begins with an embarrassing breathlessness and climaxes — sorry! — in the long-awaited and, it must be said, cringe-inducing consummation," says Mendelsohn), nor do I agree with him that she writes "swoony soft-porn prose."  But this is a matter of taste, I guess.  I liked Miller's writing, I found the book an engrossing read.  The Song of Achilles isn't a great book, but it's a good one.