Achilles by Elizabeth Cook

Geraldine Brooks said, when this book came out almost a decade ago, that it was “Homer for the MTV generation.” Which is the most threatening blurb I’ve seen lately that’s maybe meant as praise.

Homer for the MTV generation will always be the one who says not “O for a muse of fire,” but, “Mmmm… forbidden donut.”

All I can say is, is this a cool cover or what?

What she means is that this is a successful retelling for modern sensibility in general, which is true. Achilles is an intense yet dreamlike recreation of the life and afterlife of godlike Greek hero. And it’s good. Good enough to make me feel that some injustice has been done that Elizabeth Cook hasn’t written any other novels. But maybe this isn’t her medium: Achilles is more a novella than a novel, and more a long poem, you might argue, than a novella. It has very little dialogue, and it is mostly told in taut images and epigrammatic ironies that Cook squeezes from the mythology. Some of these moments are absolutely killer:

When the Greeks rape the city of Troy, Neoptolemus (Achilles’ son) is the most savage of the slaughterers to burst from the Trojan horse, and he surges from house to house, putting man, woman, and child to sword, “thinking to emulate the father he’s never met, whose armour he now wears. He wants someone to say, ‘It’s as if Achilles were living and moving again.’ But no one does.”

It’s plotted like a highlight reel of his life–any place in the myth that the author can tap for significance or interesting interpretation. Notably, Achilles is brought up as a girl (his mother, Thetis, thought this would keep his fighting ability secret and so prevent him from being sent off to war), reinforcing the idea of his sexual ambiguity, which always made sense to me. He’s the best fighter, singer, musician, speaker, dancer, everything. Achilles’ bisexuality seems consistent with the rest of his character, as if that’s just another place where he has no limitations. And besides, these are Greeks we’re talking about.

This book exhales sensuality. Achilles is conceived in a shapeshifting slobberknocker that is quite possibly the sexiest chapter I’ve ever read. Sexuality just lives in Greek mythology, so never does it feel like an author ratcheting things up for shock value, even when we hear of Helen’s molestation at the hands of Theseus.

The Helen part is interesting. Cook explains her perpetual victimization because her flawless beauty is an eternal frustration to men: “You cannot hack into it and make your mark. It makes you feel like you don’t exist… Theseus, Menelaus, Paris. Each more inventive than the last in his futile attempts to mark her.” But clearly they mark her emotionally.

I feel compelled to think and talk about pretty much everybody but the title character. As it turns out, the book is best when it isn’t about Achilles. It’s as if Cook has more to explore within Thetis, Chiron, Patroclus, and others than she does the greatest warrior of all literature.

Achilles just isn’t recognizable enough as the one from Homer, in the poem that might as well have been titled, “The Wrath of Achilles.” Where’s the gloriously callow hothead? The man-boy who’s just as adept at pitching an epic bitch-fit as he is pitching a spear into a Trojan’s teeth–at least until he undergoes one of the most important transformations in Western literature and gives Hector’s body back to his father. While that scene is in here, sure, it has no heft: instead of being so touched by King Priam’s pleas that he relinquishes his pride, Achilles basically says, “Here’s your son’s body because Zeus said I gotta give him back.” Achilles’ personality is otherwise so understated as to leave no impression. This doesn’t damn the book, but it makes it a failure in some respects.

Many people who’ve read this book have said of the ending, John Keats wtf?

And who doesn’t, at some point in their lives? I’m just going to tell you that the ending does make some sense, even if the connection is still too tenuous for my liking.

Achilles is a fast and beautiful read. It’s a shame that Cook doesn’t reconstruct the psychology of her hero in a distinct and memorable way: the book resultingly has no center of gravity. She proves successful at most everything else, which is why I’m kind of pissed that this is her only fiction. Write another thing, okay? Anything. A novelization of Avatar, I don’t care.

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One thought on “Achilles by Elizabeth Cook

  1. “Write another thing, okay? Anything. A novelization of Avatar, I don’t care.”

    This is how I felt with Arundhati Roy. That aside, excellent review yet again. Achilles has always interested me (well, ever since Brad Pitt’s little rendition of him anyway!) I’ll be looking out for this one. It is rather brave of her to be rewriting an epic, so to speak.

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