By Grant Buday
Northrop Frye’s famous historical theory of fictional modes classified stories on the basis of whether the hero’s power of action was greater than ours, less, or roughly the same. At the top of this scheme are the modes of myth and romance, tales of gods and heroes. At the bottom we have the anti-heroes of the ironic modern novel. Through the last fifteen centuries fiction “has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list,” with heroes like Odysseus/Ulysses eventually wandering the dirty streets of Dublin.
Grant Buday hasn’t displaced Odysseus to this degree. Dragonflies opens with the Achaeans still camped before the walls of Troy, in the tenth year of their siege. But in Frye’s system of modes there has nevertheless been a downward shift. The conventions of myth have been replaced by those of the realistic novelist, seeing characters through an ironic lens. All of the Greek heroes seem to have problems with ear hair. Menelaus is short-sighted, missing all of his lower teeth and twitching with palsy. Agamemnon is a clod. The greasy beard of Palamedes makes Odysseus think of pubic hair. Priam is an ancient wreck. The soothsayer Calchas (“old Couch Ass”) is “an ugly old man whose face looks like it’s been carved from an onion.” Even Helen herself is “not at all” beautiful, her face “hard, all planes and edges, her forehead too high, her chin too long, her brow too heavy.”
The heroic code doesn’t fare much better. Odysseus’s father Laertes is the voice of wisdom, warning his son to avoid getting mixed up with the “Helen business”: “all this nobility nonsense, all this glory and war, it’s bollocks. Stay home, drink wine, swim in the sea.” As for the gods, Odysseus clearly has his doubts. And even if they do exist they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. For some they are even objects of hate.
Along with his modern, deflationary, mock-heroic eye Buday also exercises the novelist’s attention to detail, one that notes the spring grass sprouting in the seams between the stones of the walls of Troy, with the goats standing on their hind legs to reach it, and how soon the air inside the cramped belly of the wooden horse becomes “heavy with the brine of men.” The epic poetry of big speeches and grand gestures is translated into a novel of sharp conversational digs and the manipulation of domestic details. Of course we know the story – even Homer’s audience knew the story – but Buday takes that foreknowledge into account in fashioning a new interpretation that is fast-paced, fresh and even occasionally surprising. Proving there’s plenty of life in the oldest archetypes yet.
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 11, 2009.