Phillips, Marie: Gods Behaving Badly
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Little, Brown © 2007, 304 pages [amazon]
The Olympian gods used to have it good. Back in the day, when mortals plied the wine-dark sea in wooden ships and everybody spoke ancient Greek, the gods were widely revered. Hecatombs were sacrificed on their behalf, libations poured. The Olympians--a petty, vengeful, randy (some of them) lot--amused themselves by interfering with human affairs, despoiling mortal virgins, stirring up epic wars, championing their favorites.... How times change. When the action of Marie Phillips's Gods Behaving Badly begins, most of the Olympians are holed up in a dilapidated London town house. They are still engaged in their characteristic pursuits: Artemis is a dog-walker, Aphrodite a phone sex operator, and Apollo is trying his hand as a television psychic. But they are increasingly bored with the never-ending sameness of life (even sex with Aphrodite can become tiresome after millennia). Divinity, in short, isn't what it used to be. The gods are losing their power and can't afford to squander any on the promiscuous displays of super-humanity that so amused them in their heyday. So, when Apollo wastes some of his strength in a fit of pique by turning a mortal girl into a tree, well, let's just say all Hades breaks loose.
[INSET TEXT: The Olympians--a petty, vengeful, randy (some of them) lot--amused themselves by interfering with human affairs, despoiling mortal virgins, stirring up epic wars, championing their favorites....] I'll admit that I was predisposed to like this book. The idea of juxtaposing the ancient gods with modernity just tickles me somehow, and I'm not averse to seeing the Olympians give modern mythologies a run for their money. Even so, I think that Phillips has done an excellent job of translating the old gods to a modern stage, imagining how they would behave in such changed circumstances. The book is charming and clever and quirky and funny. What I most liked about it is the author's portrayal of the gods' attitudes toward humanity--this tribe of short-lived creatures who are beneath their contempt yet ubiquitous. The gods have tried to minimize their interaction with humans, so when one of them knocks on the door it comes as a surprise:
"Artemis rolled her eyes and left the room. She gathered up her keys and opened the front door. There, to her astonishment, stood a small mortal, about five feet high, blondish, a little dumpy, wearing spectacles. The only remarkable thing about her was that she was standing on their doorstep. Word obviously hadn't spread about what happened to mortals who did that."
This dumpy mortal woman in turn finds the goings-on in the gods' house a bit unusual:
"When she was cleaning, Alice liked to keep herself to herself and to respect the privacy of her clients, but the people in this house didn't seem to have much of a concept of privacy, and so Alice sometimes saw too much. She particularly saw too much of Aphrodite, who was often to be found walking around in the nude, or having some quite unpleasant conversations on her mobile phone. And even after only two weeks it was obvious to Alice that Aphrodite was having affairs with all of the men who lived in the house, and while this was understandable, given how beautiful she was, Alice, who tried hard not to judge others, also found it distasteful."
With a spear to my head I could complain that scenes in the Underworld slow the narrative toward the end of the book, but I wasn't very bothered by it. Well-imagined and well-written, Gods Behaving Badly is simply great fun.