Bookforum | Feb/Mar 2006

In the South, there's a popular bumper sticker that reads IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS CAR WILL BE DRIVERLESS. At a time when literalists are loud and creationists expend so much energy twisting the beautiful stories of the Bible into pseudoscience, this is an excellent occasion to raise three cheers for myth—to praise it, revive it, show off its protean splendor. In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong's brief work introducing Canongate's new Myth series, she makes a case for this sacred form's contemporary relevance. "Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?'" A myth is powerful for precisely the same qualities that a literal reader might deride—there are knots and holes in the story, and the meanings are unfixed. In other words, it predicates its own retelling.

This is the premise of the series; a lofty project, to be sure. The publisher has commissioned writers to recast a myth—any myth, from any culture—within the format of a novella. Each volume, then, will be issued simultaneously in several countries. The authors chosen to launch this project are already known for using midrashic elements in their work. Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, transformed elements from stories in the Bible, and Jeanette Winterson, in many of her novels, but especially in The Passion, has cast fairy tales into new forms. Sometimes books in a series feel too similar, almost as if they were written by the same person, but fortunately The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus and Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles each bears the distinct imprints of its new author.

In The Penelopiad, Atwood analyzes the social forces at work in the tale of Penelope, who waits years for her husband Odysseus's return from the Trojan War. This contextualizing approach, while familiar, appeals to our sense of justice and our fondness for unearthing secrets. The female powers buzzing behind the male stage are characteristic of Atwood's novels, so it's not surprising that The Penelopiad is a witty remembrance of Penelope's life—in the form of a soliloquy from the underworld (Penelope here is long dead). She is consumed by the fate of the twelve maidens who were cruelly hung after Odysseus's return. Atwood dramatizes Penelope's close, if fraught, relationship to these maidens: They are useful friends who spy for her, but also untrustworthy gossips. And Atwood's version upends the sometimes sentimental and edifying depictions of Penelope from the past: "Don't follow my example, I want to scream in your ears—yes, yours! But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl."

The Canadian author's Penelope is accessible and engaging, more modern suburban housewife than Greek princess. But in her slangy expression and self-deprecating humor, Atwood's heroine also undercuts the pathos of her story—an approach designed to avoid the often maudlin stereotypes of Penelope as long-suffering and patient. Though much of Atwood's retelling consists of commentary, which distances us from moments that might offer more dramatic revelation, there are numerous sardonic insights. Penelope, for instance, describes how her affection for her husband grew on their wedding night: "So by the time the morning came, Odysseus and I were indeed friends, as Odysseus had promised we would be. Or let me put it another way: I myself had developed friendly feelings towards him—more than that, loving and passionate ones—and he behaved as if he reciprocated them. Which is not quite the same thing."

Punctuating this book are passages devoted to the voices of the twelve maidens—who serve as both Greek chorus and chorus line. This is The Penelopiad's most intriguing innovation, and it hauntingly puts Penelope's suffering into perspective. No matter how hard her life was, the maids had it worse: "We were set to work in the palace, as children; we drudged from dawn to dusk, as children. If we wept, no one dried our tears. If we slept, we were kicked awake." But even the maidens, who certainly deserve sympathy, are not always summoned with a mournful tone. These chapters, especially when they seem meant to be sung, are also sometimes strangely lighthearted, like lyrics from an old Broadway musical: "Sleep is the only rest we get; / It's then we are at peace: / We do not have to mop the floor / And wipe away the grease." The contradictions and silences at the edges of The Odyssey provide Atwood with her materials. Shrewdly, she never tries to transform Penelope into a hero to rival her husband, but rather makes her very ordinariness—and her recognition of her own limitations—the subject of the story.

Jeanette Winterson, in her examination of what it might actually be like to be heroic, takes a much different tack. Starting with its poetic and evocative title, Weight plunders images from the myth of Atlas, whose punishment from the gods is to bear the cosmos on his shoulders. Made up of several short chapters, the book begins with the narrator contemplating the beginning of the world as a narrative in itself ("All the stories are here, silt-packed and fossil-stored"). The central part of the myth is then told alternately through Atlas's voice and a third-person narration from Heracles's point of view. These chapters explore the inner lives of these two central characters—Atlas, the Titan (part god, part mortal), and Heracles, the strongest man on earth. Heracles offers to shoulder temporarily the burden of the universe, provided Atlas will retrieve the golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides. Heracles, who is strong physically but not emotionally, suffers as he holds up the world, tormented by "the thought-wasp, buzzing Why? Why? Why?" Meanwhile, Atlas is elated by his freedom and glad to be back in his garden. But Heracles, portrayed here as essentially a shrewd brute, eventually tricks Atlas into taking on the burden of the world again, thus locking him to his fate forever.

Winterson's book is united by images—round globes, tensed muscles, stars and planets—and by repeated phrases exploring the story's existential questions ("Boundaries, always boundaries." "I can lift my own weight." "Why not just put it down?"). But she never allows the myth to disintegrate into mere symbols. Her characters, even the gods, are rendered with bleeding wounds, sweat, and milky ejaculations. Here, she gives us the surreal texture of Atlas's experience as he first takes on his burden, pieces of time dislodged by the commotion:

Time spattered my calf muscles and the sinews in my thighs. I felt the world before it began, and the future marked me. I would always be here.

As the Kosmos came nearer, the heat of it scorched my back. I felt the world settle against the sole of my foot.

Then, without any sound, the heavens and the earth were rolled up over my body and I supported them on my shoulders.

I could hardly breathe.

Through Heracles, Winterson brings us the blunt eroticism of ancient Greek myths: "Hera turned her beautiful head towards Heracles and gave him that ironic look that he hated, while his prick went kangaroo." And the violence also comes in crushingly visceral terms (the vulture, for instance, after ripping open Prometheus's stomach, "used the man's hipbone as a perch for its claws"). This is not merely vivid writing. The prose puts the reader inside the story—we see ourselves in both Heracles and Atlas, yet we are denied the easy resolutions such identification might encourage. Should Heracles feel guilty for using his strength against others? Will Atlas ever set down the cosmos and walk away? How are Heracles and Atlas bound to one another?

Ultimately, the myth becomes an exploration of story itself. Winterson's Atlas is poignantly human, despite his supernatural body—his burden the very boundary of what he is; his desire, infinite. Though cursed by the existential knowledge that "there is no why," and doomed to solitude, he knows the world intimately: "He understood even the smallest sounds—a man turning over in bed, a bird calling danger when a hyena passed." This Atlas, alienated from the world he is also irrevocably attached to, becomes a figure for the artist-narrator herself, whose fate has given her burdens of her own: "Looking at the glowing globe, I thought that if I could only keep on telling the story, if the story would not end, I could invent my way out of the world." Winterson fascinatingly juxtaposes this bit of memoir with recent news from Atlas. In the last chapters, he is finally joined by Laika, the dog sent off to space by the Russians in 1957. Atlas catches the sputnik in his palm, finds Laika ("partly bald with fear and covered in sweat and urine and her own faeces"), frees her, and from then on he keeps her as a tiny companion. It is noteworthy and appropriately mysterious that Atlas does not befriend an astronaut but the condemned dog.

"I want to tell the story again" is the title of the first chapter in Weight, and also a refrain throughout the book. The urge to pursue a story's divergent paths is fused with the image of Atlas, ultimately suggesting that stories are what shape the world we end up carrying around with us. Weight, with its nonlinear form, suggests that to imagine a myth fully we must allow it to unfold within us; we each have borne our own impossible burdens, or waited for an unlikely return.

René Steinke is the author of the novels Holy Skirts (2005) and The Fires (1999), both published by Morrow.