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In this diary, Dave in Northridge and sfbob will discuss Mark Merlis' 1998 novel An Arrow's Flight. Merlis brings modernity to the Trojan War, and vice versa, using the tale as a way of shedding light on the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

The oracles proclaim that the war will end only when Achilles son Neoptolemus, who goes by the name of "Pyrrhus" because of his flaming red hair, dons his late father's armor and lead the Myrmidons in battle. This is rather inconvenient for Pyrrhus, who had abandoned his childhood home and is working as a hustler and go-go boy in city suspiciously reminiscent of New York in the late 1970's.

If all of this sounds a bit much to take in, you'll be surprised to discover that the book is a resounding success.

Dave in Northridge (henceforth "D"): So I'll initiate the dialogue. This book cites all of the retellings that playwrights have made of the Philoctetes story. None, of course have attempted to transpose the story to recent times the way Merlis did.  How did the transposition work for you?

sfbob (henceforth "B"): The book succeeds because Merlis is an excellent stylist. Apart from the occasional lapse the story move along because you're drawn into it. As with all fantasy writing, some amount of "willful suspension of disbelief" is required. You're going to have to grant that there are airplanes and battleships and telephones and gay bars, and at the same time, there are oracles and ten-year-long sieges of cities. Some things you just don't want to over-process; that just spoils the fun.

D. I know that I had a reaction when I saw that someone who had been one of my professors in grad school was a dedicatee, and it sent me off to figure out why. I read all the Philoctetes plays, but I didn't figure out until I saw the dedication that the unnamed resource Merlis used was an essay by the American literary critic Edmund Wilson (someone who I wrote about for said professor), "The Wound and the Bow." Also about the Philoctetes literature. At the very end of the essay, Wilson provides his own interpretation of what he calls the fable: "The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs," In this paragraph, Wilson goes on to say that Neoptolemus knows better than to try to trick him out of the bow.  And there is exactly what happens in the second part of the book, updated to somewhere in the 1980s.

He mentions the essay RIGHT at the beginning of an interview on his website. I know that "renders him abhorrent to society" would have reminded Merlis of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and we can tell from the ending that this is Merlis's AIDS novel. I thought he did a LOT better with the 1970s than he did with the 1980s.

B: Although the book was written when the epidemic had already begun to change course, it's apparent that the story leaves off at an era comparable to perhaps 1982 or 1983 when people are dying and there's simply nothing to do but watch them. It's certainly more pleasant to write and read of a time when gay life, whatever its legal limitations, was characterized by the sort of innocent adventures we experienced prior to the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps the analogy between Philoctetes' snake bite and HIV is forced and Merlis can't figure out how to make it a better fit. Merlis spent a number of years with the Congressional Research Service, specializing in health care issues. Apparently he had some significant degree of involvement with the crafting of the Ryan White Care Act. With that sort of background, and given that he's been on the scene the entire time, you'd think he'd have done better characterizing the 1980's. Still it's always dangerous to presume that the author's objective is the one you think he or she should have had.  

D: Granted, we should review the book the author has written. In the interview linked to above, Merlis says

This question implies that the mythic material is a device for exploring modern gay life, when in fact the reverse is more nearly true. The modern material is a way of easing the reader into the drama and of rephrasing, without fundamentally modifying, the questions Sophocles asked: what country are we really citizens of, and what do we owe to one another in that country?
I think that's what he does here, although the city in parts 1 and 3 and the resort in part 2 are archetypes. Your take?

B: I'm not sure I'm up to addressing Sophocles' questions, at least not in any strikingly original way. The reluctant acceptance of identification and of responsibility is a theme that shows up over and over again. You can find it in Casablanca; you can find it in the original Star Wars movies. A character does his best to escape any sense of loyalty other than to himself and to hide until all the unpleasantness blows over and yet he finds that, whether he likes it or not, there is a sense identification with a larger community and a sense of duty to that community which isn't so easy to evade. Pyrrhus would rather have hidden out in the city; Philoctetes would rather have hidden out in the resort (where he had not even intended to be in the first place) and yet they find that they really do have a part to play in the larger drama.

D: Since you mention the Ryan White care act, don't parts of Part II, which starts on a boat with Odysseus and some very available Navy men, make you think that current legislation (1998, after all) inflected how Merlis wrote the section?

B: The book was written when DADT was still new and in the more or less immediate aftermath of DOMA's passage. The shipboard scenes are replete with scenes of not asking but a good bit of telling. Not having been in the military myself I can't say how accurate any of this is but it would be amazing to me if there weren't some level of shipboard action. What is certainly true is that there is official lack of acceptance combined with "tolerance." When it comes down to it, violent homophobes are relatively rare and although far too many members of the military were discharged under DADT, despite its stated intention to make them less likely, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate a widespread understanding that tacit acceptance is far less disruptive to good order than would be the sudden disappearance of vital personnel.

The other side of course, which you didn't ask about but which certainly bears mention, is how Merlis assumed that the status quo created by DADT would go on for an indeterminate amount of time and would be seen as applying even in mythical Greece whereas in fact we've seen DADT come to an end and DOMA on its way out. Some of the assumptions as to what can be shown and what must be hidden have suddenly become quaintly and fortunately dated.

D. And your take on the Trojan War and the fact that the characters behave in many ways as ancient Greeks did even as they behave in many ways as modern gay men?

B: There are echoes of Vietnam and foreshadowings of Iraq and Afghanistan, (despite the book having beep published prior to our endless involvement in both nations). There is a veneer of rationalism reflected in the attitudes of most characters as demonstrated by their doubts about the usefulness of oracles combined with their evident fascination with what oracles pronounce. Everything seems to proceed as a hypothetical "well, of course this is nonsense but if we were to grant that prophecies were true, this is the next step we should be taking."

D: One of the characters Merlis created for this is Leucon, Mr. Everygay, who accepts Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus as a roommate. We meet him in part I, we don't see him in Part II and we meet him again in part III. I would have liked to know more about him. How did you feel?

B: Yes I agree. I'd probably have found it all more satisfying if, at the end of the war, Pyrrhus returned to "The City," reconnected with Leucon and ended up living happily after after with this fellow who really is just a very decent guy, even if he's a bit lost. We've all known people like him. I tend to identify with him and it would have been nice to see him get the hot guy. Merlis even drops hints early on that Pyrrhus has at least some feelings for Leucon.

D: Wonderful, enjoyable book. Much better, in my reading, than American Studies. Lots of useful information about gay life, especially in the 1970s too. I'd recommend it as a factual gloss for Dancer from the Dance (funny how we keep coming back to that, isn't it) for our younger readers, because I think this book is a must-read.

B: The book is indeed a must-read. It's a must-read not least because Merlis is such a good storyteller. You can overlook any of the minor inconsistencies and be taken along by the strength of the characters. As callow an individual as Pyrrhus may seem, there is something basically decent about him. You want him to outgrow his shallowness and he does.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule




DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 2:00 PM Political Books Susan from 29
Mon 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29, michelewln
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month - on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
Fri 6:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

D: And unless I'm mistaken, the cupboard is now bare. I'm sure some of you have books that you'd like to bring to the attention of the community of readers (regardless of their orientation) at Daily Kos.  In the comments, or by Kosmail to Texdude50 or to Dave in Northridge. It's the summer!

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