|Taken Gently by the Hand...|
I don't know about you, but my immediate impulse upon encountering a story entitled "Arms and the Woman," and discovering that its first line is "'What did you do during the war, Mommy?'" is to fling the book or magazine containing it across the room before I can read another word. Because it is instantly obvious what the story must be like if it is to live up to that beginning, and obvious as well that the odds are overwhelming that it will fail to achieve that happy state.
Any experienced reader can intuit at once the ideal shape of such a work. It must be the true history of Helen of Troy, told in retrospect by an older and wiser Helen. It must be comic throughout and farcical in places, but it requires as well an underlying seriousness. It must breezily anachronistic, yet simultaneously respectful of and true to the Iliad itself. The frame tale must comment on the central tale. It must be satiric (why else go to so much trouble?) and the satire must be simultaneously broad and subtle. There has to be a wonderfully apt twist at the very end.
In short, the story must have all the lightness and sting of a wasp souffle.
It's too much to expect any writer to deliver such a concoction at will, and wise readers, aware of this, will shun the work, knowing that one false word will stain that perfect image already formed in their minds and ruin the experience for them completely.
It was lucky for me, then, that I first encountered James Morrow's "Arms and the Woman" at a Dixon Place reading in New York's Lower East Side. Since I was scheduled to read after him, there was no polite way for me to slip outside for the duration in order to avoid exposure to what must almost certainly be a disappointment. And so I am here today to testify that, by God, Jim brought to the plate a souffle that was delicate and puffy and filled with wasps both alive and angry.
This is not a judgment I deliver lightly. To test it, I obtained a copy of the story and, of an evening, read it to an audience made up of my wife and my then pre-teenaged son. They both loved it. So I can confidently say that "Arms and the Woman" has both surface and depth.
The work of the critic, as I understand it, is to start from the particular work and explicate its more universal meanings or applications. But I am not a critic. I am a working writer, and when I peer into such a complex prose mechanism as "Arms and the Woman," and see all those madly-spinning gears meshing so precisely, my first reaction is Damn! How did he do that?
Let's take a look.
"Arms and the Woman" begins with a first-person frame. Helen of Troy - we know who she is from the title and first line but, obeying the conventions, Morrow makes this explicit with the first post-frame words of the narrative - is trying to put her two small children to bed while they beg her for a story. Quickly-sketched physical details - straw pallets, a sundial, a cottage - place the reader in a storybook past, referred to as Egypt, though the phrasing of the children's pleas comes straight from Twentieth-century suburban America. In ritual fashion, the children plead and the mother at first resists (though not sincerely, for she wishes to tell the story) and then relents. She begins, as she must, with the words, "Once upon a time ..."
At this point, the reader has been put in the place of the children - promised a story, assured that it's a good story, quietly signaled that it contains a moral message, reassured that the narrator is firmly on their side, and gently coaxed into the right frame of mind for what is to come.
The narrator's voice fades away. A third time, the story begins:
"Helen of Troy, princess and prisoner, sits in her boudoir, looking into her polished bronze mirror and scanning her world-class face for symptoms of age - for wrinkles, wattles, pouches, crow's feet, and the crenelated corpses of hair. She feels like crying, and not just because these past ten years in Ilium are starting to show. She's sick of the whole sordid arrangement, sick of being cooped up in this overheated acropolis like a pet cockatoo. Whispers haunt the citadel. The servants are gossiping, even her own handmaids. The whore of Hisarlik, they call her. The slut from Sparta. The Lakedaimon lay."
How differently this would read without the reassurance of the frame! Helen here is not presented in an attractive light. Petulant, powerless, and caught up in a banal domestic drama, she doesn't even know that the Trojan War is being fought over her. Readers are like baby ducks, and will imprint upon the first character presented to them. But they also form early judgments which they will not easily surrender. Since Helen is the moral voice of the story, she needs the authority of her later self, as earlier presented, if the enterprise is to work at all.
Fiction is like chess in that, structurally, there are only so many combinations of opening moves that can be made. Morrow has two narrative backfills of information in "Arms and the Woman," the first of which is conservatively set here, in the second section, when the reader has invested enough attention to be reluctant to jump ship, and is not yet impatient to get to the end.
Helen's musings and subsequent conversation with Paris achieve two things: First, they lay out the terms and conditions of the story in a clear and unambiguous manner. Second, they begin the process of guiding the reader through his or her remembered knowledge of the Trojan War.
Small hints are scattered to cue memories that may not be entirely fresh. In this section, where so much is going on, the hints are necessarily simple: Aphrodite won the Apple of Discord; Helen's husband is Menelaus. Later the references will get specific enough ("Hector's faithful driver, Eniopeus the son of horse-loving Thebaios, steers his sturdy war chariot along the banks of the Menderes") that those of us who haven't re-read Homer recently must simply trust in Morrow's good will. But right now, the author is busy earning that trust; and trust is earned incrementally. It begins with baby-steps.
The second section ends. Everything to this point can be read as prologue.
"The slaughter is not going well." Again the story begins, this time in third-person subjective, from Paris's point of view. At four removes, it is very difficult to determine where one stands relative to base reality; one can only rely on the narrator's good will. And Morrow has been scrupulously fair so far.
The shift in point of view cues the second comic engine (the first is the fact that Helen is aging) for the plot: The Trojan War is flagging, in part because Helen is no longer lovely enough to urge the soldiers on to their deaths, and the leaders on both sides need some new gimmick to keep it going.
Helen makes her appearance. But this is a Helen transformed, a heroine, all decisiveness and active verbs. She arrives at a gallop and jumps down from a war chariot, clad in armor and brandishing a cowhide whip. She has ventured onto the battlefield and discovered the truth:
"Paris, this army you're battling--they're Greeks. Idomeneus, Diomedes, Sthenelos, Euryalos, Odysseus--I know these men. Know them? By Pan's flute, I've dated half of them. You'll never guess who's about to lead that cavalry charge."
Paris takes a stab. "Agamemnon?"
"Agamemnon!" Sweat leaks from beneath Helen's helmet like blood from a scalp wound. "My own brother-in-law! Next you'll be telling me Menelaus himself has taken the field against Troy!"
Once you've admitted that something is very funny indeed, there's very little productive to be said about humor. But it's worth noting that where in the second section much of the humor comes from the juxtaposition of disparate things - spears and lunch buckets, funeral pyres and coffee klatches, Troy's high walls and a certain brand-name of condom - now the humor arises largely from the language, from the clash of modern idiom with Homeric situations and rhetorical devices. "What's going on, Paris?" asks Helen. "For what purposes have the men of horse-pasturing Argos come all the way to Ilium?"
To drop a modern sensibility - the reader's sensibility - into an archaic story is as good as telling the reader how and what to think. Thus, the humor serves as a two-edged tool.
* * *
Line break, new section, a continuation of the preceding, but with the third-person narrative shifted back to Helen. Her first appearance on the battlefield had to be shown through alien eyes in order to spare the reader her interior voice (for no woman is a hero to her conscience) and provide an exterior viewpoint of her as somebody glorious, somebody worth identifying with, no longer a victim but the protagonist.
"Dizzy with outrage, trembling with remorse," Helen witnesses the horrors of the battlefield. Filled with resolve, she drives her horses toward the sea, to surrender herself to her husband, Menelaus, and so put an end to the war. Let's take a look at a sample of the prose here:
"All along the beach, Helen's countrymen are raising a stout wooden wall, evidently fearful that, if the line is ever pushed back this far, the Trojans will not hesitate to burn the fleet. The briny air rings with the Achaians' axes - with the thud and crunch of acacias being felled, palisades being whittled, stockade posts sharpened, breastworks shaped, a cacophony muffling the flutter of the sails and the growl of the surf."
This is lovely. It is also, one should note, unadulterated with humor. Behind the wild, anachronistic action is a setting good enough for a straight retelling of the original. This not only serves the underlying seriousness I demanded at the beginning of this essay, but also makes a most excellent backdrop for the jokes (which I have for the most part refrained from spoiling for you; give the story a read - there's a good chance you'll laugh out loud), so that they gleam from the page like gemstones on velvet.
However, this sort of action-adventure plotting is very appealing to the reader. Dangerously so. It is all too easy to get so caught up in the headlong narrative thrust of a single bold woman trying to put an end to a brutal and meaningless war that one forgets what the story is about. Morrow is a satirist. He has more on his agenda than just an adrenaline rush.
Alfred Hitchcock observed that once the camera has gone into close-up, it cannot pull back to a distant shot without draining all the suspense from the scene, like wine from a bottle whose cork has been pulled. But Morrow needs to damp down a narrative that is threatening to become too exciting, too engaging, for his purposes. He draws back for the long view.
The narrative cuts to the frame briefly, so the children can complain "Here comes the dull part," and their mother can sooth them back into silence. "As for now," she tells them, "listen carefully. You might learn something."
Whenever Helen speaks directly to her children, Morrow is speaking directly to the readers. Like children, he takes them gently by the hand and leads them safely through the story. The pace is about to slow now, he cautions. Be patient. Read carefully. I want you to think about what the story means.
The meeting between the Trojan and Greek leaders is the only scene set in the third-person objective, and the only one in which Helen does not appear. "By the burbling, tumbling waters of the river Simois," it begins, "beneath the glowing orange avatar of the moon goddess Artemis" and so on for a total of 58 words in the first sentence alone. With the background prose at its most self-consciously (to the point of bombast, if not quite self-parody) serious, Morrow inserts his most outrageous passage, the explanation of why Helen's surrender cannot be accepted:
"At which point slug-witted Ajax raises his hand. 'Er, excuse me. I'm a bit confused. If Helen is ours, then why must we continue the war?'"
"'Panthoos means that, if this particular pretext for war - restoring a woman to her rightful owner - can be made to seem reasonable, then any pretext for war can be made to seem reasonable... By rising to this rare and precious occasion, we shall pave the way for wars of religion, wars of manifest destiny - any equivocal cause you care to name ... This is the war to make the world safe for war.'"
I don't need to explain the satire here to anyone. Morrow has worked hard to make his message clear and unambiguous. Note, however, that he ends the section with a narrative hook - a nod, a wink, and a hint of what is to come: Wily Odysseus tells the council that there is only one course of action, and that is to make "the dear, sweet strumpet shine like new."
This is done not so much to draw the reader into the following section, though it serves this purpose too, as to defer the revelation of a plot twist, thus turning a bit of stage mechanics into a pleasant surprise for the reader.
Two quick scenes follow, one upon the other. Helen is visited by Paris, and betrayed. Then she is betrayed again, this time by her husband. Both scenes are as short as Morrow can make them, which is to say as brief as the reader will allow.
Again, at exactly the most "exciting" part of the story, Morrow cuts to the frame. Once again, the adventure aspect of the tale is taking over, and once again Morrow steps hastily in to stop the action, as if it were a team of runaway horses.
This second incursion of the frame into the story proper succeeds first in stopping the action dead, second in running through a lot of swashbuckling hugger-mugger in quick order, and also as a recursive commentary on reader expectations:
"What color were they?"asks Damon.
"Red, mostly, with daubs of purple and black."
Neat indeed. This is emblematic of information that Damon (and the reader) knows all along, but wants to hear anyway. The seductive appeal of a familiar tale told in the expected manner is an enemy that Morrow must wrestle into submission time and again throughout the story.
Back in Troy, Helen confronts herself. Or, rather, the simulacrum that has been made of her out of wood, marble, ivory, wax, and fleece. It is "an idealized rendition of herself, the Helen of ten years ago, svelte and smooth." A clockwork mechanism, it can do no more than wave its lovely arm and shout, "Onward men! Fight for me! I'm worth it!"
The two comic engines of the story - Helen's aging, and the need to keep the war going - have come together into a single literalized metaphor.
In less time than it takes to describe the simulacrum, "Fair Helen turns the tables on history, gleefully abducting herself from the lofty stone city of Troy."
The scene cuts to Paris. Again, this is done in order for Helen to be held up for our admiration, as cannot be done from her own perspective:
"Paris can't help it: he's proud of her, by Hermes' wings. He's puffing up with admiration. This woman has nerve, this woman has arete, this woman has chutzpah."
She is, he realizes for us, about to put an end to the war. All that's needed has been told.
"The end," Helen says, and we are back in the frame. The children (of course) noisily demand more plot, more details, the adventures of Helen on the isle of Lesbos. With brusque efficiency, Morrow ties up the loose ends: an explicit statement that her mission of peace accomplished its end (which makes this story an alternate mythography, I suppose, but let's not follow that thread), how Helen came to Egypt, and above all, exactly where the children came from.
"We were the product of artificial insemination," Daphne explains for me.
"That simplifies matters," Damon elaborates.
"Morrow doesn't have to explain where we came from, or who the father is."
"Because, really, we're not so much characters as a device enabling the story to be told."
"But we're not just a device."
"No, we stand in for Western Culture..."
"...which isn't genetically descended directly from the ancient Greeks..."
"...but only culturally, through the artificial intervention of ideas and even stories, such as the Iliad."
"Yes, yes," I say patiently. "But you're getting into interpretation here, and that's not really what we're doing. Remember?"
There is a very simple rule for "readability" which states that the more dialogue, the faster the read, and conversely that description and exposition slow things down. Daphne and Damon's cheerful expository dialogue moves one rapidly through a great deal of information that Morrow had no choice but to postpone to the very end of the tale, and which the reader nevertheless expects to be told if the story is to satisfy. They deal with it swiftly, and with assurance.
All Morrow needs now is a capper, and the reader, expectations satisfied, will let him go.
To accomplish this, he pulls the false Helen out of the prop closet. The simulacrum, already used as a running gag through the fictive endgame, unites all the comic themes of the story into one image. The children adore her. As do we. The false Helen, the beautiful lie of glorious combat, is revealed as a worthy entertainment (if no more) and the children (and we) are absolved of any guilt for loving her as such.
There is a final verbal twist at the very end and Morrow is, of course, careful to give it two edges: It has an obvious comic meaning that can be caught and understood on the fly, and a more subtle satiric implication that can be mulled over at leisure. Both responses are required by the reader as well as the writer.
Morrow's work is finally done, and he may now rest.
Which is not to say that this sort of story is as easy in practice as I've made it sound. The perfect souffle is all in the preparation. But if you want to try it for yourself, here's the recipe:
Take three or four eggs. Separate their whites from the yolks. Make a custard sauce from the yolks, and cook gently until thick and creamy. Set aside to cool.
Whip the egg whites in a copper bowl until stiff. Fold gently into the custard sauce. Pour into a casserole. Slide into an oven, and watch it rise.
Add wasps to taste.