Friday, September 10, 2010

Tone Deaf: The Last Song of Orpheus

Eternal return, serpents: Orpheus sees it all Robert Silverberg’s The Last Song of Orpheus—out September 30 from Subterranean Press—starts from a worthwhile premise. Greek mythology is scattered through with stories about the semi-divine musician. A character who intersects Euridice, Jason (of the golden fleece), Medea, and Odysseus before his own violent, final meeting with the Bacchates should offer an exciting trip through some of the better myths. Gathering them into a single narrative told by Orpheus not only unifies his story, as well as those of the other heroes whose paths he crosses, but employing the first-person presents an opportunity to introduce more personality and motivation to the character than is typically found in, say, Edith Hamilton. Unfortunately, Silverberg’s execution runs around short of this promise.

An opening evocation is a welcome nod to the formal conventions of Homer and other Greek poets, but the book his rocky territory early on. A first-person narrator needn’t be likable, but, as a rule, must be engaging. Silverberg’s Orpheus is imperious, remaining—despite telling his own story—at an off-putting distance. Early on, when given the gift of music by Apollo:

My dream went on and on. Apollo showed me much else, things that I may not share with you in any detail, for they border on the Great Mysteries that only an initiate in the highest order may know.
Rather than lend an air of mystery, in these often-repeated reminders that Orpheus knows more than the you, reader (and no, he’s not going to share), he comes across as merely withholding and, in their overly vague suggestion, they create a narrative dead space.

Further kneecapping the storytelling, Silverberg visits early and often the idea of predestined action.

You ask me, then, why did I turn back to look at her, I who knew that Hades had explicitly forbade it, I who can see all things past and future and who understood what the consequences of that single glance would be? And I answer you that we are none of us allowed the option of deviating from the track that has been laid down for us by the gods… The gods choose our destinies for us, and once we are set in our paths no foreknowledge of consequences can turn us for long from our dooms, not even I, who travel ceaselessly on the ever-repeating current that is my life.
Predestination is a meaty source of potential inner-conflict. Particularly when, as with Orpheus, here, teamed with an eternal return: knowing exactly what you will do, and having no choice regarding it. Orpheus neither questions, nor resists, only returns to mention inevitability, usually as justification for something regrettable he has done. This passive acceptance is the biggest difficulty: it creates an incredibly flaccid narrative voice, which only exacerbates the reader’s distance from the story and the character.

Although Silverberg seems content to leave a deeper philosophical probing of the eternal return of the same to Nietzsche, his narration nonetheless has Orpheus treat his action moment-to-moment as efficacious: his lute playing convincing Charon to row him across the Styx, soothing the serpent that guards the fleece. The effect is fascinating tension between knowing that there is no choice and yet approaching individual action as meaningful in itself. Silverberg doesn’t explicitly investigate this tension, but, in a grain of redemption, it suggests depths that could have been found in this story and offers a little spring to try to keep the writing afloat.

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