Monday, September 22, 2014

THE GOLDEN MEAN, historical fiction with balls, and wombs. Literally.


THE GOLDEN MEAN
ANNABEL LYON

Alfred A. Knopf
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: On the orders of his boyhood friend, now King Philip of Macedon, Aristotle postpones his dreams of succeeding Plato as leader of the Academy in Athens and reluctantly arrives in the Macedonian capital of Pella to tutor the king’s adolescent sons. An early illness has left one son with the intellect of a child; the other is destined for greatness but struggles between a keen mind that craves instruction and the pressures of a society that demands his prowess as a soldier.

Initially Aristotle hopes for a short stay in what he considers the brutal backwater of his childhood. But, as a man of relentless curiosity and reason, Aristotle warms to the challenge of instructing his young charges, particularly Alexander, in whom he recognizes a kindred spirit, an engaged, questioning mind coupled with a unique sense of position and destiny.

Aristotle struggles to match his ideas against the warrior culture that is Alexander’s birthright. He feels that teaching this startling, charming, sometimes horrifying boy is a desperate necessity. And that what the boy – thrown before his time onto his father’s battlefields – needs most is to learn the golden mean, that elusive balance between extremes that Aristotle hopes will mitigate the boy’s will to conquer.

Aristotle struggles to inspire balance in Alexander, and he finds he must also play a cat-and-mouse game of power and influence with Philip in order to manage his own ambitions.

As Alexander’s position as Philip’s heir strengthens and his victories on the battlefield mount, Aristotle’s attempts to instruct him are honored, but increasingly unheeded. And despite several troubling incidents on the field of battle, Alexander remains steadfast in his desire to further the reach of his empire to all known and unknown corners of the world, rendering the intellectual pursuits Aristotle offers increasingly irrelevant.

Exploring this fabled time and place, Annabel Lyon tells her story in the earthy, frank, and perceptive voice of Aristotle himself. With sensual and muscular prose, she explores how Aristotle’s genius touched the boy who would conquer the known world. And she reveals how we still live with the ghosts of both men.

My Review: I think this is up there in ambition of storytelling with The Song of Achilles, the five-star imaginative tour de force by Madeline Miller. Aristotle as narrator of his time spent in Pella? A good idea! Tutoring Alexander means getting to the heart of the legend that surrounds Alexander and vivifying him, dusting off the fustian and falderol accreted to his tale.

Here's Alexander speaking to Aristotle:
You who understand what a human mind can be, how can you bear it? I don't have the hundredth part of your mind and there are days when I think I'll go mad. I can feel it. Or hear it. It's more like hearing something creeping along the walls, just behind my head, getting closer and closer. A big insect, maybe a scorpion. A dry skittering, that's what madness sounds like to me.
Nice. Not a teenaged person speaking, and no I'm not retroactively applying 21st-century standards to Alexander, I'm fully aware that he was a powerful king's heir and a man before he was 17. But that's not my inner ear's problem with the passage.

It sounds like speechifying. It's not faux archaic, it's not arch or overwrought. It's just...speechy. Like a modern presidential speech to the jus' folks at a Town Hall. Aristotle, a man of immense intellect and unbounded curiosity, attempts to instill those qualities in Alexander's still-forming mind:
You must look for the mean between extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time.
Aristotle uses some pretty vulgar (in all senses of the word) subjects to pique the youth's questing intelligence's appetite for information. (If Alexander was alive now, he'd be a Google employee assigned to counter-hacking.)
My father explained to me once that human male sperm was a potent distillation of all the fluids in the body, and that when those fluids became warm and agitated they produced foam, just as in cooking or sea water. The fluid or foam passes from the brain into the spine, and from there through the veins along the kidneys, then via the testicles into the penis. In the womb, the secretion of the man and the secretion of the woman are mixed together, though the man experiences the pleasure in the process and the woman does not. Even so, it is healthy for a woman to have regular intercourse, to keep the womb moist, and to warm the blood.
In the end, the historical Alexander and the historical Aristotle are brighter figures for Lyon's spit-polish of their statues. It's a good book, and I won't read it again. I feel it's delivered its payload of meaning and philosophical pondering to me. Alexander sums up the experience of The Golden Mean quite well:
You and I can appreciate the glory of things. We walk to the very edge of things as everyone else knows and understands and experiences them, and then we walk the next step. We go places no one has ever been. That's who we are. That's who you've taught me to be.
I can't begin to tell you how tough it was for me to finish this five-star idea and rate it under four stars. I can't honestly push it higher, for the reasons I've given. It might seem to others a perfect five, which rating I can't give but can see how a reader with a more accepting nature would.

Watch this writer. This is a debut novel, following a story collection and a novella collection as well as some YA work. There is nothing in this book, either structural or aesthetic, that suggests to me a career of mediocre ~meh~ness. Fine, imaginitive writing will come forth from her pen. I haven't read the follow-on to this book, The Sweet Girl, about Aristotle's daughter. Happen that I will, with a deal of hope for excellence.

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