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Pickle Me This

January 4, 2008

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Ultimately, Marie Phillips’s God Behaving Badly is a very silly novel. Which I do not mean as a dismissal, as, for two reasons in particular, it is also a very useful novel.

First, because silliness has its uses. Silly is not the same as stupid, nor stupid-making. What Phillips has set out to do in this, her first novel, she has accomplished with aplomb. Imagine the ancient gods and goddesses of Greece alive and, though not-so-well, living in modern-day London. Apollo, the god of the sun, turning into trees those women who won’t satisfy his sexual whims, and, with whatever is left of his dwindling powers, causing the sun to rise and set each day. Artemis is a dog-walker, Aphrodite a phone-sex worker, they’ve locked Zeus in the attic, and Demeter just tends her garden– though her clematis has died. No one can understands a word Athena says, and their house is absolutely filthy. Clearly the gods have come down in the world, and indeed, they’re behaving badly.

Silliness transpires, inevitably. When Apollo falls for their cleaner (thanks to a trick played by Eros, who incidentally is trying to be a Christian), cleaner ends up dead (struck by lightening), her sometime-boyfriend must go down to the Underworld (via Angel Tube Station) to bring her back. Premise is key here– there is no room for character development. Even plot is not the point (particularly in a world where characters can simply be “inexplicably drawn” towards their destiny, thanks to some kind of spell). But premise alone manages to be enough to sustain this novel, which is a snappy, funny, light read.

Gods Behaving Badly is useful for more didactic reasons however, though I know many classicists will pour scorn on my theory. But silliness aside, Marie Phillip’s project is enormously well-executed. Her story of these gods and their own stories is positively bursting with facts, details. However irreverently, she has made thousand-year-old stories relevant to modern-day readers. And I realize this book has got nothing on the texts from whence it sprang, but the thing is that I’ve never read those texts. There are massive gaps in my education, which is my own problem of course, but I didn’t really know about Artemis. Certainly not that she was Apollo’s twin, and I’d forgotten about Ares since I learned about him in my grade nine mythology unit.

Which means that the next book I read now in which these timeless tropes are used (albeit with subtlety) I will pick up on the allusion. I felt similarly when I read Orpheus Lost: grateful that a writer has seen fit to bring these stories (back) to life for me. And it means that the original stories (which for so long have seemed to me from so far back as to be arcane) are now accessible– so close I could actually pick one up and read it. And perhaps I just might.

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