Monday's book: Pyrrhus by Mark Merlis (Fourth Estate, pounds 10.99)
Monday 16 March 1998
Pyrrhus is first seen dancing naked in a gay bar, where the patrons think that he is "some kind of god" - as indeed he proves to be, by virtue of birth (his grandmother is the sea-goddess Thetis). The character of Pyrrhus - body by Zeus, personality by Narcissus - is brilliantly observed. His entry into prostitution is accompanied less by moral scruples than by aesthetic ones; he does not wish to be seen leaving the bar with an unprepossessing 50-year-old. When he justifies his behaviour with "no one ever dies from sex," the ironies echo across the years.
He is persuaded by his late father's counsellor, the eunuch Phoenix, to join the Greek army and fulfil the prophesy that he personally will destroy Troy. He is attracted by a vision of camping "with a bunch of unwashed straight guys", but first he must stop off in Lemnos (a kind of Homeric Provincetown) and collect the exiled Philoctetes, whose magic bow also features in the prophecy.
Merlis's Philoctetes, unlike Sophocles's, is gay, an emaciated figure who is clearly living with Aids. Indeed, the unhealed snake-bite from which he suffers becomes the equivalent of the monkey-bite which, according to some theorists, was the origin of HIV. Pyrrhus's attempts to seduce Philoctetes and the burgeoning relationship between them form the climax of the book.
This is an original and enjoyably camp novel which exploits all the comic possibilities of its dual perspective. At one point Pyrrhus justifies an unhappy sexual choice as "I was blinded by Aphrodite"; at the next, Philoctetes describes a youthful date with Helen at a drive-in movie.
Merlis uses his classical setting to examine various gay types: Phoenix, the "invert" who preferred to be castrated than to be gay; Philoctetes, the 1970s hedonist, who was destroyed by the quest for pleasure; and Pyrrhus, the mindless, soulless hunk. Yet there remains something strangely old- fashioned about the whole enterprise, reminiscent of the attempts by Victorian aesthetes to validate their sexuality by appeals to ancient Greece. American Studies is a novel of wide appeal; Pyrrhus will probably find its most receptive readership on a Mykonos beach.
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