xo Orpheus: A Farewell to Myth

September 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

xo orpheus coverTuesday the 24th marks the release of xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, editor Kate Bernheimer’s follow-up to 2010’s My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: 40 New Fairy Tales. Bernheimer’s raison d’etre is the fairy tale and its form, and her previous anthology celebrated the malleable and enduring nature of fairy tales through fairy tale-inspired short stories by contemporary authors. But with xo Orpheus, tales of gods instead of princes, Heavens instead of hearths, were the challenge.

Myths are innately different from fairy tales, because myths, in Bernheimer’s own words, are about “the celestial, the magical, [the] other, [myth is] from on high down, and intersects with the humans. And in fairy tales, [the ineffable is] among us.” Myths are our explanations not of everyday life, but of the world at large, how it came to be, and who made it so. Retelling a myth means rewriting our explanations of the world.

Bernheimer’s introduction asks us to look closer at the role we take on as storytellers—that of gods ourselves. Xo, Orpheus: the title is a farewell, contemporary literature bidding goodbye to myth the way a college-bound kid waves goodbye to his nervous parents—just as deeply felt, just as dismissive. We are, Bernheimer posits, in the age of the “Anthropocene,” the new human one who can change the climate of an entire planet and cast his image into a device from thousands of miles away. Gods have become God, and God has become us. We have traded in our belief in gods for belief in ourselves—but with that seems to come a need to reinvent our tales as a way of constantly saying goodbye to what came before. This is why the short stories in xo Orpheus are mainly bleak—we are perhaps too nostalgic to make very good gods in a godless age.

“What is myth in the age of the Anthropocene?” Bernheimer asks. Fifty authors have answered: modern mythmakers are proud but sad, full of awe yet jaded, fearful yet callous.

There is not much in the way of redemption in the Greek myths. Any radiance comes from the gods themselves, or the god machine that saves the hero from imminent death. But when setting the gods in contemporary human bodies, in a world that has been taught to be critical of the god machine when it appears, any radiance in these stories gets doused in darkness. Full of beautiful but somber writing, this is an elegaic book, with only a little of the whimsy that characterized many of the tales in Bernheimer’s earlier collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. Some stories are humorous, such as Ben Loory’s “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun,” but even those end darkly, with the character’s ironic death or head-butt with their own hamartia. Some are terrifying on the level of Medea, such as Victor LaValle’s “Killcrop,” a stark slice of horror which lacks irony of any kind.

Gods were sullen or angry because they had the weight of worlds on their shoulders, or beings as powerful as themselves to contend with. The characters in many of these stories cannot say the same—instead, their god-like status is a fleeting illusion, even if their sullenness is everlasting. If they are gods, the world they rule has little purpose for them, making them very human indeed.

Although each story offered something new and well-crafted, I hungered, reading this collection, for some optimistic myth-telling.

The story that stuck out to me as containing both the most awe-inspiring moment of pure myth as well as the most optimistic whisper is Aimee Bender’s “Devourings” (published as “The Devourings” in her recent collection, The Color Master). “Devourings” is a retelling of the myth of Cronus, with a dash of Molly Whuppie and Jack & the Beanstalk thrown in. It’s a brutal story initially, about the ogre-god who is tricked into eating his own children, told after the fact from the 3rd person POV of his wife, the children’s mother. The wife, tired of watching her marriage dissolve after the children’s deaths five years before, lights out on her own adventure, hiding out in a forest with a cloak of invisibility and a magical, regenerating cake, with the intention never to return home. The story is about healing, both in a familiar domestic sense and, in the end, a very mythical sense indeed, thanks to a jolt forward through time after the ogre and his wife have died of old age. The cloak and the regenerating cake go “on and on,” and in a passage so lovely and delicate and broad in scope that it couldn’t possibly be about an old coat and a piece of cake, but surely is, Aimee Bender cradles the universe in her story’s arms, saves it from darkness, and ensures that myths live on. I would recommend taking a look at xo, Orpheus for several reasons, but most of all for the final passage of “Devourings”—the evidence that although we may have killed our gods, we have not yet disposed of the wonder that led us to invent them in the first place.

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