NOT many critical essays stick in the mind on the basis of title only, but ‘Sheherazade runs out of plots, keeps on talking – the king, intrigued, listens’ is one of them. Philip Stevick’s 1973 Tri-Quarterly article was a manifesto of the new ‘fabulatory’ fiction and criticism of the decade, committed to the notion that in the postmodern realm narrative generated its own significance and its own morality, without reference to external consequence or ends, or even the depiction of character in the old rounded sense. Penelope’s web, the tapestry made each day by Odysseus’s wife to keep at bay her importunate suitors and then unpicked at night to prolong the process, stands equally well as a metaphor for that kind of racially deconstructive narration. That both images involve female storytellers won’t readily be missed, though it isn’t clear whether the weight goes toward the feminist conclusion that women are the primal storytellers (and survivalist storytellers at that – Sheherazade stands to lose her head if she doesn’t keep on talking; Penelope faces a fate worse than death), or the notionally misogynist counter-argument that casts Sheherazade and Penelope as interrupters and debunkers of epic consequence.
Both women are deeply embedded in world-classic narratives, The Thousand Nights and One Night and the Odyssey, respectively, but neither is strictly speaking a central, active character, and more of a narrative backstop. Christopher Rush’s aim in this remarkable novel is to offer a new version of the Odyssey and the Trojan war prequel of the Iliad – not a true siege, his protagonist insists – mixing narratives by Odysseus (mainly), Penelope (usually more briefly) and an omniscient narrator who views events from the aspect of the gods and their supposed intervention in human affairs. Within this structure, whose subdivisions are marked by either a male or female profile relief or a Greek-key symbol to indicate the god-like perspective, there is, of course, constant reference to another pre-existing narrative, which is Penelope’s woven version of events, unseen by us but the first attempt to give coherence and aesthetic shape to the Trojan adventure.
Rush has Odysseus articulate a version of Stendhal’s paradox – reflected in La Chartreuse de Parme in Fabrice’s confusion as he wanders the field of Waterloo – the idea that a single narrator cannot take and articulate the full significance of great events. Odysseus says, ‘You don’t see much of a battle except what’s in front of you and what you can catch out of the corner of your eye. For the big picture and the exclusive scenes, for the mass and individual slaughter outside your range, you have to go to the web’. It used to be said that the twentieth century was closer to the medieval mind-set than to the seeming certainties of the Enlightenment and after. In the same way, the postmodern world partakes of antiquity in curious new ways. The web – or Web – has acquired new meaning, and the notion of a shared epical/mythological knowledge disseminated and available across the known or civilised world is revived in the labyrinth of the Internet. Rush doesn’t make the connection explicit, but it is difficult to avoid it. He proceeds by a kind of dis-enchantment, not so much debunking myth as showing the process by which quotidian fact is transformed on Penelope’s web and then in the poems attributed to ‘Homer’ into magic and mystery.
The death of Achilles is a good example. As readers of myth, we understand him to have died of cosmic mischance, hit in the one part of his body not prophylactically dipped in the river Styx during babyhood. Odysseus, in his bluff, soldierly way, says that a shot to the heel even with a poisoned arrow is beyond the skill of that fanny-merchant Paris and beyond even luck. The detail of the heel is spurious. Achilles was actually hit in the back, but such information isn’t for the people at home and isn’t for posterity. Likewise Philoctetes, who nowadays comes down to us through Freudian theory as a type of the wounded artist whose disability is balanced by a fearsome bow-arm. Here, he’s merely the casualty of a non-theatre injury, an inglorious snakebite that has gone septic. He’s kept off the ships because, great shot or not, no one wants to smell his pus at close quarters, day after day. Again, Rush plays it cleverly and light and without any hint as to whether he’s read Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, though I’d take a small bet that he has.
Fiction of this ambition requires the subtlest harmonisation of narrative registers. Rush has form, having ventriloquised the dying Shakespeare in Will from 2007. This is a more complex project, with a wider remit and a less obviously theatrical context. There are moments when the three separate voices are too obviously orchestrated – and the little chapter icons a designer’s indulgence – but the logic of the retelling demands a very subtle movement from real-life event to mythological encapsulation to divine intention and thus an extremely subtle shift of idiom to express these in parallel or in sequence. As readers of classical literature, we generally think of Odysseus on the voyage home, and undergoing adventures which already seem metaphoric and symbolic, recounted in some measure of tranquility; the Odyssey has already been used as the Ur-text for a single summer day in Dublin, June 16 1904, so we are primed for drowsy pub adventures and conversation.
Here, though, we meet Odysseus as a blood-boltered participant in military action, an elite soldier with the invading force. His narrative is a virtuosic balance of Homeric/epical language and soldier’s talk. On a single page one might find such poetic formations as ‘wine-dark sea’ and ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ alongside combat slang: MBO (‘moving black object’), FUBAR, CFB, and, as sign-off to any unlikely, brave or foolhardy action, a laconic ‘As you do’. There are squaddies who can’t get out a sentence without saying ‘As you do’. Or without some kind of phatic obscenity. The language of Penelope’s Web will keep it out of the running for Book at Bedtime. Odysseus’s speech is strewn with what Billy Connolly used to refer to as pee-aitch-you-queue. More problematically, c*** is used freely, in both its invective and rough comradely way, but also as an anatomical term, and this in itself takes us close to the deep meaning of the book.
The Trojan war was sparked by the capture or elopement of a woman. It is, as Odysseus constantly reminds us, a war fought over c*** and with that prized vacancy placed always at the heart of the action. Rape is a way of waging war, and it is also the wages of war. Women are considered to be fair game and legitimate reward. Interestingly, while individual deaths in combat are anatomised in pathological detail, with javelins passing through eyes, bladders, nipples, mouths, there are no literal recountings of rape and the only physical violation of a female described in detail is the post mortem mutilation of Penthesilea, who comes into battle shortly after the death of Achilles, dressed in male armour. Rush doesn’t provide the moment with any heavy thematic cadence, but it’s hard to avoid a gasp of recognition as the Greeks discover who and what they have killed.
Deaths come thick and fast. Pages are strewn with names and genealogies, some familiar to the classically literate, but most of them not. At a time when we are borderline obsessed with the memorialisation of war – Waterloo, the Marne, Gallipoli; the Somme just round the corner – this heroic individuation is a striking comment on the supposed anonymity of modern warfare, which is only anonymous if you don’t know the fallen man or his family. So, Penelope’s Web is a book about war that, like The Naked and the Dead or Catch-22, manages to be about very much more. The more obsessively detailed the killing, the more we ponder (as you do) the wood-versus-trees perspective on combat and the more we look for the moment when military quantity flip-flops into epic quality. By repeating Joan Didion’s insistence that the classical world was never artfully distressed, cool and distant, but aggressive, bloody and in your face, Christopher Rush has written a profound meditation not just on our present condition but on how we all live inside ‘the web’, how we weave fact, how way we make and unmake fictions, and how we choose to live and die by them.
Polygon, £14.00, ISBN 9781 846 973093