The first thing that needs to be said about the winner of this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction—The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the Iliad by first-time novelist Madeline Miller—is that it is a pleasure to read a version of the Trojan war in which Achilles and Patroclus are in a devoted partnership, sex very much included. The second thing that needs to be said is that we do it no favors by treating it as a “literary” novel—it is, in fact, a very pulpy read. Given this, it’s a bit hard not to be amused by the high seriousness with which the book has been received. Reputable reviewers have accepted the reading offered to them by the publisher and praised it as “an exquisitely realized vision of the Greek landscape,”1 with prose “as clean and spare as the driving poetry of Homer,”2 and so on.
It’s really much more fun, and certainly truer to the book, to read it as a retelling of the Iliad in the mode of the romance novel. Take, for instance, the following passage. Patroclus, the book’s narrator, is describing his early infatuation with Achilles:
Those seconds, half seconds, that the line of our gaze connected, were the only moments in my day that I felt anything at all. The sudden swoop of my stomach, the coursing anger. I was like a fish eyeing the hook.
Does a fish eyeing a hook feel a “sudden swoop of the stomach,” a “coursing anger”? Do fish “eye” hooks at all? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Patroclus is telling us what kind of story we are in. For his part, at least, the pleasures of the story are those of the bodice-ripper: centrally, the fantasy of being taken against one’s will. In more contemporary terms, the closest genre of romance here is probably “M/M” or “slash” romance: erotic fan fiction, written mostly by and for women, about the homosexual adventures of famous male fictional duos (think Kirk + Spock).
For some, this makes for a pretty good read—here is Patroclus: shy, obedient, overlooked; but now here comes strong, handsome Achilles to sweep him off his feet and have his way with him. But having noted it, one is often left wishing that the author had known more about her genre, so that she could have approached it with the particular kind of seriousness it deserves.
One by one, Achilles caught the remaining fruits, returned them to the table with a performer’s flourish. Except for the last, which he ate, the dark flesh parting to pink seeds under his teeth. The fruit was perfectly ripe, the juice brimming. Without thinking, I brought the one he had thrown me to my lips. Its burst of grainy sweetness filled my mouth; the skin was downy on my tongue. I had loved figs, once.
I take it that passages like these are meant to be suggestive and erotic, but surely what they chiefly suggest is that our narrator Patroclus is missing his sense of camp.
The core of the book is a fairly competent, because fairly fun, fantasy novel for “young adults.”
One could keep quoting this sort of thing, but it’s an easy target. In fact most of the book’s problems seem to arise out of Miller’s anxiety about being Writerly, understandable enough in a first-time novelist. When Miller forgets about being a Writer and just gets on with the story, she is able to churn out a serviceable romance in the older sense of the term: romance as the genre of wish fulfillment, full of heroic deeds, magic, and adventure. Indeed, the core of the book is a fairly competent, because fairly fun, fantasy novel for “young adults.” It is fun when the two children, Achilles and Patroclus, get to ride Chiron, the Centaur, up the side of Mount Pelion. It is fun to imagine being young and in love with someone forbidden to you; it is fun to imagine how you would conceal that love from your parents, if your father were a king and your mother an angry goddess of the sea. It is also fun, albeit in a Boy’s Own Adventure kind of way, to imagine being an Achilles who can effortlessly beat the stuffing out of anyone who challenges him.
The question then becomes: why hide a perfectly serviceable, and at times even rather compelling, fantasy novel for young adults between the covers of a bad “literary” or “historical” novel? How did the reviewers, the Orange Prize judges included, learn to misidentify their own pleasures in this peculiar way? Is there perhaps some snobbery involved? Are the two wonderful genres that fall under the heading of “romance” really so shameful that they must be concealed from those who read them—and even, one can’t help but suspect, from some of those who write them—beneath a polite, class-appropriate interest in the Classics?
- Charlotte Higgins, “Madeline Miller’s Orange prize win captures the prevailing literary mood.” The Guardian, May 30, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/30/madeline-miller-orange-prize-2012-mood. ↩
- Mary Doria Russell, “‘The Song of Achilles,’ by Madeline Miller.” The Washington Post, March 5, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-song-of-achilles-by-madeline-miller/2011/12/12/gIQAW7satR_story.html. ↩