Sunday, April 30, 2017

Herakles by Euripides translated by Anne Carson

Hera gets irrational revenge on Herakles

Herakles’ wife and father are not sure if he will return from Hades, where he has been dispatched on his final labor.  Lycos, King of Thebes, is at the palace gates, demanded the execution of Herakles’ two young children in order to protect himself from future usurpation. Just as the children are about to be led out to death, Herakles returns triumphant (as he always does) and kills Lycos, much to the joy of his happy family.  As Herakles and his family offer prayers at the temple, Iris, handmaiden to Hera, and Madness enter.  Reluctantly Madness accepts her assignment, which is to drive Herakles insane.  She does so.  In his deluded state, he murders his wife and children.  His father mourns.  When the bound Herakles awakes from his madness, he is downcast.  But his friend Theseus takes charge of him and leads him off the stage and into his new bereaved life.

The gods, Hera in particular, put a heavy strain on humans.  For no really good reason, she destroys Herakles’s life.  His father hidesso that in his madness he will not commit the unforgivable sin of patricide.  But at the end of the play, Theseus, a fellow human, allows Herakles to lean against him, taking him back to Athens and sharing half of his wealth.  Trust in humans, not in the gods, although I love the personification of Madness.  She does not want to do what she is sent to do.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The two children of performance artists resent their unusual childhood.

Caleb and Camilla Fang are performance artists who delight in staging uncomfortable situations.  Their art is only strengthened by the birth of their children, Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B), who participate (unwillingly) in their elaborate scenarios.  Once the children grow up, they break from the family's artistic endeavors.  But then for different reasons (nervous breakdown, getting hit in the face with a potato gun), the children are forced to go home.  But once they get there, it seems as though their parents are bent on staging the most elaborate trick of them all.

This book was like a textbook of on how to deploy quirkiness, although it didn’t take very long before the quirkiness became monotonous.  Also, the story seemed to rely on long stretches of dialogue.  In many ways, the central idea is delightful, a confection, only I felt that the plot, in some places, felt forcibly wrangled into place.  The big sister actress is fiery, Buster is a little more unsure.  Their relationship drives the story. The main problem is that I didn’t particularly care whether the parents were alive or dead.  They weren’t very nice, and, more importantly, they seemed one note and boring.  Finally, the end felt forced, fantastical and a bit crazy.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Three strong women are viewed through the prism of a fourth

The unnamed narrator recalls her childhood escapades with Tracey, her similarly biracial friend.  They meet in dance class where it is quickly discovered that the narrator has flat feet, but Tracey is truly talented, though dragged down by the ignorant working class values of her white mother, and scarred by the abandonment of her father.  In adulthood, Tracey’s fate is entwined with her enraged insanity.  The narrator’s Jamaican mother is a big fan of self-improvement, the course of which takes her to Parliament.  Meanwhile, the narrator gets a job as a personal assistant to a Madonna-like rock star.  The rock star establishes a school in a small West African country, and the narrator travels to the village to help establish the school.  In the course of that journey, she learns some lessons about who she really is. 

I was disappointed in this.  Zadie Smith’s previous novels had deep structural flaws which consistently resulted in unsatisfactory rushed endings, but in which the reader also was rewarded with deeply moving scenes and brilliant observations and dialogue.  In comparison, Swing Time had long stretches of dullness, as well as long stretches of mildly interesting reportage.  Part of the problem is the passive first person narrator.  Her conflict wasn’t clearly articulated or compelling.  She didn’t seem three dimensional, not in the way that the ambitious mother or even the unambitious father felt three dimensional.  The narrator is joined in that flat universe by the Aimee-Madonna character.  Aimee is not even really a charming egomaniac, she’s just grating.

There are numerous good scenes in here – the scenes in Africa and with the mother and the early childhood scenes are good.  It’s just that the story never comes to a dramatic peak.  The main plot twist doesn’t feel correctly established or supported by the desultorily doled out plot points.  The narrator keeps referring to some event that changed everything, but that gimmick feels hoary, and the actual event, once revealed, is stupid. This book might contain the world’s most half hearted love triangle.  Also, for no apparent good reason, Darryl Pinckney is thrown in.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hekabe by Euripides translated by Anne Carson

A traumatized queen has had enough

Queen Hekabe has endured the violent death of most of her children and the loss of her glorious Trojan empire. Now she is a slave in the camps of the Greeks. Her suffering, however, continues -- Dead Achilles has appeared as a ghost, demanding the sacrifice of Hekabe’s youngest daughter, Polyxena. The Greeks are a little reluctant to communicate this to Hekabe but Polyxena comforts her mother and bravely goes to her death. Next, Hekabe discovers that her youngest son Polydorus, whom she entrusted to close family friend Polymestor, was murdered by his host. Now Hekabe is out for dramatic revenge.

This play is stark and beautiful. In many ways, these great classic plays feel like a response to the glorified indiscriminate war making and murdering found in the Iliad. The horrible plight of women is a theme, along with the consequences of being absolutely powerless. How are you to retain your dignity? You can’t – you can only endure. Polyxena’s death scene, as recounted by a messenger, is amazing. She doesn’t want to die being held down; she wants to die free rather than live as a slave. Much of this play is about the dishonor of being manhandled. The ending of the play, in a twist right out of an action adventure movie, is Hekabe’s outsmarting the murderer of her son and wreaking a terrible revenge.

There’s also something going on with the Greeks about the exposure of the breasts. What does it mean?