August 04, 2016
(+++) ODYSSEYS OLD AND NEW
Argos: The Story of Odysseus as Told by His Loyal Dog. By Ralph Hardy. Harper. $16.99.
Anatomy of a Misfit. By Andrea Portes. HarperTeen. $9.99.
The Fall of Butterflies. By Andrea Portes. HarperTeen. $17.99.
The Iliad and The Odyssey continue to enthrall modern readers even though the original oral-tradition poems, steeped in Homeric similes and a plainspokenness for their time that has become complexity and pretentiousness in ours, are very difficult for non-classicists (and even some classicists) to read. The underlying stories, though, of the Trojan War and of the 20-year postwar meanderings and adventures of Odysseus, still have tremendous narrative power. The question is how to make the tales meaningful, or at least understandable, to modern readers. Ralph Hardy has an intriguing idea for retelling The Odyssey to young readers: give the story from the viewpoint of an invented, ever-faithful dog named Argos, waiting patiently and longingly for his master’s return and learning something about Odysseus’ deeds and perils from birds that can cross Poseidon’s waters far more readily than Odysseus can and thus bring news back to Ithaka. Inevitably in a book for young readers, this is a sanitized version of The Odyssey, with violence downplayed (although scarcely absent) and sexuality missing. Yet the highlights of the tale are here and are well told, and the well-known faithfulness and devotion of dogs neatly mirrors the faithfulness and devotion of the long-suffering Penelope, awaiting her husband’s return year after year while fending off increasingly demanding and distinctly unpleasant suitors seeking her hand, status and property. To interest young readers further, Hardy makes Telemachos, Odysseus’ son, a major character in the story: “Now in his thirteenth spring, Telemachos has turned even more inward, for there is no man about to teach him the ways of the hunt, as boys learn at this age.” Argos becomes Telemachos’ tutor as well as his companion, with Hardy at one point having Argos remark, “one day Telemachos will be a king. Burt now he is a boy who misses his father.” The boy-dog relationship provides continuing interest in the events in Ithaka even as Argos learns from bird after bird about the wanderings of Odysseus in distant lands. Hardy bends the reality of dogs’ lives by having Argos, a very large dog who claims to be “bred of a wolf and a bear,” live almost to the end of his master’s story, but also manages a touching transition to a new generation by having Argos pass on his knowledge, beliefs and concerns to another dog when he himself can go on no longer – a well-thought-out parallel to the notion of a human father passing on knowledge to a human son. Argos communicates with many animals in addition to birds – bats, for example, and a hedgehog. And he has plans of his own to make: his clever plotting of the destruction of a marauding wolf pack leads an admiring magpie to comment, “You have your master’s cunning.” But The Odyssey is a story about times when cunning is enough and times when it is not, and some flavor of this comes through even in Hardy’s simplified version. Parents who know and love The Odyssey may find Argos rather thin gruel, with so many scenes focused on Odysseus’ homeland and family and with the reports of his encounters on his long trek being given mostly in bare-bones fashion. Yet readers who do not know The Odyssey – and it is they, after all, for whom Hardy wrote this book – will find this a fine, rousing story of a bold dog and his family, a story that intersects with but is not (until the very end) part of the story of The Odyssey itself, but that will hopefully whet young minds and imaginations for a later encounter with the original. And hopefully that encounter, for those not versed in ancient Greek, will be with a translation of sufficient skill and heft to bring across the amazing variety within Odysseus’ story and the grandeur and life lessons integrated into it.
There is nothing grand, much less grandiose, in Andrea Portes’ teen-focused novels, Anatomy of a Misfit (originally published in 2014 and now available in paperback) and The Fall of Butterflies. These are intended as odysseys of a sort different from the ancient one: they are stories of inward journeys and interpersonal connections, not ones of grand events and world-spanning travels. There is humor rather than wit here – nothing like Odysseus’ brilliant identification of himself to the Cyclops as being named Nobody, so that when he blinds the man-eating monster, the Cyclops howls, “Nobody is hurting me.” Instead, Portes creates protagonists who are street-smart and plainspoken in thoroughly modern language that it is quite certain that no one will care much about a few thousand years hence: “I know you probably think Shelli bones all those guys because she’s in love with them, but here’s the funny thing, I don’t think that’s it. I think she just does it to spend time with them. …I know I couldn’t do it. Especially ’cause I’m totally petrified of contracting some grody disease. You never know with these guys. Some of them look like they are like straight out of juvie.” The words are those of Anika Dragomir, central character in Anatomy of a Misfit and third-most-popular girl in her school. Portes labors mightily to make Anika with-it, up-to-date, contemporary, and just “the coolest raddest hottest girl in the US of A” (actually Anika’s description of someone else). Reader reactions to this book will depend totally on their response to Anika, who is either delightfully offbeat or dismayingly unidimensional. Certainly the characters around her are all types. Anika’s father is Romanian, which means he looks like a vampire and lives in a castle-like house. Anika’s parents are divorced and her mother has remarried, so that means her stepdad, being a typecast stepfather, weighs 300 pounds and “never talks to us,” the “us” being Anika and her sisters. The sisters, who are “sluts” (there are lots of those in Anika’s world), spend their time “talking on the phone to more guys who don’t like them.” But guys do like Anika, which is surprising, since she considers herself “hideous,” which by her more-or-less-objective description she certainly is not: “blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin” and “a boy jaw, like a square jaw, and cheekbones you could cut yourself on.” On and on and on this goes, with Anika’s world eventually intersecting with that of Logan, one of two guys who especially have the hots for her (the other is the one everyone in school wants, but he may be, like, you know, a player). Logan and Anika become a couple after he tells her he is going to kiss her and she is going to like it, and he does and she does. But Logan is unacceptable in the Queen Bee world of Anika’s school, so the relationship has to be kept secret, or maybe has to end, or something. The way it does eventually end is supposed to be both climactic and deeply tragic, but it is so abrupt and so out of keeping with everything that has come before that the likeliest reader reaction to it is something along the lines of, “Wait. What just happened?” It is almost as if Portes tags the end of one book onto the initial 90% of another. That first 90% means well in its own way, but that way is distinctly peculiar. For instance, it is against racism – but includes putdowns of homosexuals, Christians and other groups, so this is not exactly PC-ism run riot. Ultimately, Anatomy of a Misfit is about the bad things that happen when you care too much about the opinions of the wrong people. And that is a trope of teen-focused novels that may not be as old as The Odyssey but seems even more formulaic.
The Fall of Butterflies takes much the same approach, but here the downside of life is in the form of drugs rather than sex. Again there is a snarky protagonist whose narration either works for readers or does not: “If you ever want to see a bunch of people look like idiots, go to an audition. Any alien from Andromeda Galaxy beamed down into this auditorium would assume he had just blasted his way into the funny farm. Trust me.” This time the main character, whose name is Willa Parker, goes (at her mother’s insistence) to a fancy boarding school across the country from her home in What Cheer, Iowa, where Willa deems herself the 646th and least popular resident. Willa ends up with a haunted bathroom (an element of the book that is either oddly endearing or ridiculously overdone, depending on your point of view) and a new friend who is rich and wonderful and everything that everybody wants to be except that she is, you know, drug-doomed to destruction and may pull Willa (whom she befriends, not very believably) along with her. Like Anika, Willa makes what are supposed to be clever comments and observations that are really kind of mean: at the very start of the book, for instance, she denies some classmates any human names and refers to them only as Peanut Allergy Boy, Headgear Girl and OCD. This is not quite the same as calling multiple girls sluts, but the objectifying comes from the same place and is scarcely an endearing characteristic. Portes makes some effort to have Willa become self-aware of the destructiveness of the drugs in which she and her friends indulge, but in the voice she has created for Willa, the looking inward comes across as whiny and formulaic: “I can’t help but wonder, what’s the price this time? What’s the price for this ride?” Eventually there is enough talk of suicide and enough free-floating angst so that Willa actually lapses, apparently unknowingly, into a snippet of Shakespeare: “oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.” And that is about as “classic” and as close to The Odyssey as this particular troubled-teens odyssey ever gets. Clearly Portes’ intent is to reflect the real world of teenage girls today – some of them, anyway – and to create a kind of gritty and insightful coming-of-age story or two. But there is so little originality in the plots of Anatomy of a Misfit and The Fall of Butterflies, so little sense that they are anything other than teen-girl-targeted “poor me” genre novels, that the attempt to draw readers in through snarkily offbeat narration quickly comes to seem like manipulation to take the place of character development, or rather to draw attention away from its absence. It is certainly possible to enjoy the snide sarcasm of these books’ narration, but on the whole, readers will find more wit and even wisdom in Argos the canine than in all the cattiness of Portes’ central characters.