The main drawback of pastiche-writing is immobility. Writers can tap into all the drama of a story that was often old before they were born, but they risk destroying that drama completely if they alter any of its fundamental ingredients. Some slight movement of the furniture is possible, but the work of pastiche is in essentially trivial elaboration. Tasso can indulge in all the poetic asides he wants, but he must adhere to the punctilio of his virtuous Christians; the various writers of Superman can invent new and fiendish villains, but they can’t make the Man of Steel gay; Shakespeare, that greatest of all pastiche-writers, cannot change the line of succession to the English throne, but he can compress, regress, and digress right up to the edge, in order to sharpen his drama.
That edge – knowing it when you see it, not being afraid to run right up to it – is the key focal point of all successful pastiche; if you fall off that edge, your work is no longer pastiche (and so becomes direct competition with your source – usually a fatally one-sided affair), but if you stay too far away from it, your work becomes a scholar’s parlor game, devoid of drama.
David Malouf’s new novel, Ransom, is a scholar’s parlor game, devoid of drama.
His story is Homer’s: the great city of Troy has been besieged for years by the Greeks, and Troy’s King Priam has lost many of his fifty sons in the defense of his world. The Greeks’ fiercest warrior, Achilles, has quarreled with the leader of the expedition and withdrawn his men from the fighting, which brings about a temporary surge of victory for the Trojans, led by their own best warrior, Hector. Achilles’ lieutenant Patroclus , frustrated with the Trojan victories, dons Achilles’ armor and leads a counter-attack, only to be killed by Hector. This enrages Achilles beyond reason (Malouf talks of the two being “mated,” but one suspects he means the word more in an Australian sense than a literal one), and he goes out and kills Hector, then drags the body around the walls of Troy, then brings the body back to the Greek camp. In one of the Iliad’s most affecting scenes, Priam goes to the Greek camp and begs Achilles to return his son’s body.
Malouf centers his slim (and hence, praised) novel on that trip to the Greek camp – it’s a miniaturist approach that smartly excises virtually all the business of the Iliad and allows an emphasis on one man’s bewildered grief. Unfortunately for Ransom, that man isn’t Priam.
Instead, Malouf has ransacked the lowest cellars of Shakespeare (or Plautus) and produced (“created” being far too heady a word here) a rude theatrical, a muleteer named Somax who’s quickly drafted to convey to the Greek camp both Priam and the vast heap of treasure the king offers as ransom for the body of his son. In order to serve Malouf’s ham-handed purposes, Somax must be three things: honest, innocent, and stupid. He is duly all three. In the course of their buggy-ride, Priam hears stories about the family of Somax, the mule of Somax, the loves and losses of Somax – when they stop to rest at a cool stream along the way (clearly a favorite scene of Malouf’s and tolerably well-done if one ignores everything about it other than how well done it is), the muleteer hardly shuts up for a second. The character betrays no awareness that he shares a long common history with Priam, although as king and subject this is certainly so – instead, Somax acts like he not only just met the guy but only just heard about him. During this journey Priam is almost entirely passive and silent (a less accurate-feeling portrait of a man in the middle of an extravagant act of grief would be hard to imagine), the better for Somax, who gets all the room in the novel for his profundities (“What creatures we are, eh, sir? With so much life and will, and then, pfff, it’s ended”).
Priam’s motivation is a mystery in which Malouf has no interest. The king tells Queen Hecuba that what Hector’s death requires is “something new,” some extraordinary gesture on his part. But what the narrative tells us is a bit different:
The truth was that none of his sons was in that sense particular. Their relationship to him was formal and symbolic, part of that dreamlike play before the gods in the world’s eye that is both the splendour and the ordeal of kingship. He could not even be sure of their actual number. Fifty, they said.
Dramatically speaking, this is nonsense – but it’s the only kind of nonsense that can come from Malouf’s Priam, who is as pre-programmed and axiomatic as the muleteer. In order for the one-dimensional (and, if you pause to think about it, deeply insulting) morality play here to work, Somax must be rich in soma, the unpretentious felt world, and Priam must be austere and removed to the point of oblivious priggishness. If either one is a real person – say, a lower-class worker who might know nothing of life’s deeper verities, or a king who’s known his share of hardship and dispossession – the “Driving Miss Daisy” tableau Malouf has constructed falls apart.
Still, even prosaic and condescending rest-stops must come to an end, and eventually, with the help of Hermes (only a couple of gods actually appear in Ransom, and they are awkwardly, irregularly handled – obviously bedraggled survivors of some very different earlier draft, or else hastily shoved on-stage for this final version), Priam and his chauffeur reach the Greek camp. The scene in which the old king appears, ghostlike, in the crowded headquarters of Achilles, is very effectively stage-managed – until the characters start talking. At which point every single possibility of drama leeches away. Once they’re both set before Achilles, Priam natters on a bit to Somax about what a fine time he’s had crossing No Man’s Land that afternoon (Somax doesn’t, in fact, say “well, sir, it seems to be that our whole lives we be a-crossing something or other” … but it’s nothing short of a miracle that he doesn’t), and Achilles watches:
Achilles is intrigued by this by-play between the two old men, who belong to such different worlds – the humility of the one, the awkward shyness of the other – and all the more because it has proceeded as if it were a matter strictly between the two of them and he has no place here. He might have taken offense at this, but for some reason he does not. The unfamiliarity of it, the unlikeliness, takes him out of himself. It amuses him.
If you can spot either a bereaved father or the butcher of that father’s son anywhere in that passage, you have sharper eyes than I do. And if you can’t spot either of those things – because they aren’t there, even though they have to be, even though Ransom is almost entirely pointless if they’re not – and you still don’t mind their absence, Malouf is clearly writing his book for you. For my part, I kept looking for some hint of the rage or power of Homer, some hint even of the poignant sadness of Virgil – some indication, however slight, that Malouf had come within distant hailing range of that edge I mentioned. For the entire thirty minutes it took me to read Ransom, I was hoping it would care enough about the drama of its subject to perhaps care a little less about that subject’s decorum. But even in the final pages, that hope was being dashed over and over , as in this moment when man-killing Achilles looks one last time on the body of his fallen foe:
What he feels in himself as a perfect order of body, heart, occasion, is the enactment, under the stars, in the very breath of the gods, of the true Achilles, the one he has come all this way to find.
He sits quietly in contemplation of this.
He sits quietly, in contemplation? Achilles? Somewhere in Elysium, Quintus of Smyrna is not happy.