Sunday, December 02, 2007

Review—Gods Behaving Badly

Aphrodite as the girl next door? Greek gods get a taste of mortal life in modern London

Imagine that the Gods have descended on earth, not to fulfill some suitably divine mission, but to eke out an existence in a dilapidated London home. This outlandish premise is the basis of Marie Phillips's uproariously funny Gods Behaving Badly. Saddened by their declining authority, the Gods make a last-ditch effort at engaging, literally, with humans.

So, we encounter all the heroes (and heroines) of classical Greek mythology crowded in a house near Hampstead Heath. There is Apollo, who is trying desperately, and somewhat successfully, to discover his calling as a TV psychic. There is his sister Artemis, formerly goddess of hunting and chastity (ironic, given her family's concupiscence), who is now reduced to the rather pitiable state of walking dogs.

Dionysus runs a night club; Aphrodite, understandably, runs a successful phone sex agency, much to the bewilderment of her righteous son, Eros. Athena's wisdom shines through in the rather literary way she continues to address the household, much to the chagrin of the other, long-dissipated Gods.

The Greeks live amidst such squalor (they are Gods, not sweepers, they remind us) that it becomes imperative to hire a cleaner. Enter Alice, the innocuous mortal who has the nerdy, Scrabble-obsessed Neil for a boyfriend. Trouble brews when Apollo sets his sights on her, and Alice, attracted to the lusty charms of the classic Greek hunk, returns his advances.

Phillips is obviously at home with Greek legends, and the artifice of plotting one God against another to ensure the survival of mortal love is a likable guise. Artemis extracts a promise from wayward Apollo to never harm mortals, but when circumstances deem otherwise, she is not averse to the idea of Olympian justice.

In this endlessly funny novel, some scenes manage to stand out. Especially endearing are moments of desperate confusion worked upon Neil and Alice as they divine that they are at the center of unearthly affairs. Neil's reprising of the tale of Orpheus to rescue Eurydice, accompanied by all the trappings of sneaking into the underworld, is absurdly droll.

Perhaps the only weakness this book can be faulted with is too much action, a frantic tendency to humor at all costs. Hermes, the Olympian God of travelers, may have a role to play in this, bringing on and casting off coincidences at his sweet will. But that, given the originality of Phillips's idea, is a minor irritant in an otherwise deeply rewarding read.


Here's a YouTube video on the book

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