Monday 13 August 2007

Gods Behaving Badly

Marie Phillips

Marie Phillips has created a new sub-genre. I’d call it maenad-lit - chick-lit meets ancient Greek mythology - and very entertaining it is, too. The book reached me on Saturday morning and I reached page 126 before getting up, and the end of the book by Sunday, trying not to laugh aloud in that way that’s so annoying for everyone else.

The style is pure read-me-standing-up-on-the-tube, don’t-want-to-put-me-down fun. The content is altogether more metaphysical. Phillips asks herself, what if all religions are not equally valid, and wonders what would happen if the one that was literally true turned out to be ancient Greek. So instead of one all-knowing, all-powerful, generally benevolent God, we have a feuding family of petulant, vain, mostly horny individuals running the show. What if the Olympians were alive and well and living anonymously in North London?

This is where it helps to be a bit familiar with Greek myths and legends. Not to follow the plot, but to appreciate the jokes. Dionysus is a DJ with his own nightclub (God of wine, theatre and partying, you see). Athena wears glasses ‘to enhance her air of wisdom’.

The gods, immortal but with waning powers, struggle to find a place in modern society. Some of them take their divine responsibilities seriously, despite human indifference. Others, especially thrill-seeking egotist Apollo, are happy to misuse what’s left of their powers to relieve the tedium of endless life and recapture some kind of adulation. Which these days means a TV show, ‘Apollo’s Oracle’. All of them will use whatever it takes to rebuke, restrain or get revenge on one another.

Unlike our modern, numinous deities, the Olympians are flawed, contradictory, limited, human. And it’s the ‘normal’ humans in this book who are a bit harder to believe in. Alice, a contract cleaner and Neil, an engineer, are a love story waiting to happen. More accurately, waiting for at least one of them to get up the nerve to make it happen, since both are shy, geekish types. He has his videos arranged in chronological order, she is a Scrabble whizz with an almost fetishistic enjoyment of words. Except that they are rather ordinary words, like ‘paradox’. I’m not sure at times whether Phillips is trying to make her characters more interesting by bolting on some unsubtle traits, or encouraging us to laugh at how boring they are.

When their lives get entangled with the Gods, Neil and Alice are clearly in for a bad time. Not only does Alice become the object of divine affections, but soon the fate of the entire world depends on the pair of them, unlikely heroes that they are. Actually, we get reminded rather often that Neil is an unlikely hero, just in case we’d never noticed that Odysseus didn’t have a collection of comics, or too many scruples to take advantage of a woman when she’s upset. But by that point, there is so much going on that it’s a minor irritation. Neil and Alice turn out to be plucky and likeable under pressure, and what they’re up against is so unpredictable that they can’t help being interesting.

I like this kind of imaginative humour. I once co-wrote a comedy in which there was a door leading directly from Hell into King’s Cross station, and Phillips thinks the same way. There’s a mix of page-turning adventure and smart comedy that is well above the chick-lit average. There’s an inventive exploration of life, death and eternity that reminds me a little of Bill and Ted, or the Time Bandits. It takes real talent and lots of craft to write a new myth in a form that’s this easy to read. I hope it sells millions.


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