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Meredith Steinbach

TriQuarterly Books, $15.95

The Birth of the World as We Know It; or, Teiresias

Meredith Steinbach

TriQuarterly Books, $24.95

by Molly McQuade

Any modern creator of myth has to contend with the challenge of heroes and their role, an increasingly uncomfortable role as the world seems to recruit fewer and fewer heroes. Meredith Steinbach's fiction has almost none. She's a critic of myth who also chooses to redream and brilliantly reinvent it. Two recently published books, one new (Teiresias) and the other reissued (Zara), show her at her very best.

In Zara, a novel originally published by Ecco in 1982, she considers the challenge of heroism indirectly in an American setting. Her subject: a creation myth gone awry. At stake is the right of a heroic woman, Zara, to create herself. Like the virtuously brimming heroes of olden times, Zara Montgomery is beautiful, smart, reasonable, variously talented. But she is also torn and tormented by her mortality, a fact she cannot contradict or triumph over.

Zara could not remember when her mother's outward healing had given way to a deeper wound. . . . Zara stayed with her one semester and then another, tending to her, carrying her about as her mother grew smaller, lighter, as if she were evaporating on their brief travels from room to room. And as they walked, Zara would press her belly to her mother, and Kathryn would wrap herself around it, coiled, as if a fetus wound about some revelation in the womb.
It was then that Zara thought perhaps this was not her mother dying here, but that she herself was dying wrapped up in her arms. The little bundle, the babe, the mother-child. "Little one, little one," Zara sang and tucked her mother in and washed her skin and kissed her gently on the ears.

Her mother dies of cancer despite Zara's sacrificial care. Partly as a consequence, Zara despairs of her own promising career in medicine, her father's profession and source of pride. She marries a fellow medical student, then watches as his sanity disintegrates along with their marriage. Though practicing medicine in a nominal, part-time way at a clinic, Zara essentially gives it up for art. She begins to make enormous puppets for shows she scripts and stages for a small local midwestern audience. That is her new and self-created life.

Yet Zara's fate seems to be that she must keep on wondering whether she will ever quite belong to herself. The only moments when it seems she's sure come during her surreal, expressionist puppet plays; they offer Zara catharsis, and take her from the mythically American setting of the novel to a far more unexpected place where she can truly belong: the imagination.

Steinbach's new novel, The Birth of the World as We Know It; or, Teiresias, is the book that Zara might have written after she forsook her old ways in that "realistic" life of hers, after she decided to flout conventional expectations. Teiresias is like the surrealist puppet theater chosen as an alternative by the ex-clinician--a different moral universe. Teiresias ventures where Zara couldn't but her puppets did, offering a playful, panoramic portrait of what used to be called "immortal life." Instead of giving us the throes of the Montgomeries, Steinbach's new novel gives us the throes of the gods.

Steinbach may have chosen a classical Greek cast for her new book because of its overtly mythic attractions for an imagination (hers) that recognizes ruin as a reliable human odometer: how far you've gone can be defined largely by how much you've lost. Teiresias can't ever be a hero, despite his qualifications, but he could be the most poignant of all men, because he tried the hardest to be a hero and seemed most likely to succeed. Why does success elude him? Because he can prophesy the future but can't do anything to alter or avert it. Because, although singularly perceptive, distinguished, and powerful, he can barely ever get anyone, god or man, to listen to him seriously.

The adroit comic side of this novel would have us believe in the immortal roster as contestants in a talk-show: there are good lines and comebacks, excellent pratfalls, varied gambits, and rumored grand prizes to be found among the gods' foibles. One example of the foibles is a romantic interlude between Zeus, "the father of the universe," and Semele, his tattooed teeny-bopper girlfriend:

On the sixth of March, the sweet and silly--aren't we all a little silly at fourteen?--sumptuous, plump, and golden olive-skinned Semele, with black hair in tight spirals to her shoulder blades, sauntered out in a short tight skirt, two black spiders painted on her chest with all their hairy legs radiating round each taut breast, chewing betel nut, and singing lullabies to herself and to the son of Zeus, whom she had sworn was to bear the name of Dionysus.
"There's no objection here," the father of the universe said. "But why in the name of the Gods are you wearing a getup like that? You always seemed so sweet to me. Where are all your white bodices? What are these spiders on your chest and thighs? You've actually painted spiders on your thighs."
"Don't you like it, then?" she said, pert and challenging. . . .

In his trysting with Semele, Zeus escapes from his dysfunctional marriage with Hera, which is certain to last longer than they'd like. Semele, the lovably small-brained sacrificial sex-object, is destroyed by Zeus with a bolt of lightning when she carps and nags at her sugar-daddy a little too much. Zeus himself is doomed, as he has been told repeatedly, to lose all his cosmic eminence once Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed come along and take hold of the human mind. (He learns of this calamity well in advance, but he won't heed it--after all, it's only Teiresias talking.) We also have Odysseus the stalwart, disabled by his bad attitude, the "intelligent" but fickle Echo, the self-besotted Narcissus, et al. This is a crew of misfits and gossips who can't seem to get anything done. They entrance us in a flux of fates that might as well be ours.

And Steinbach writes of the gods as though they were ourselves, only magnified and far more amusing. It is an odd irony that they should choose to behave so imperfectly, given their extraordinary powers--but then, they can choose to be almost anything. One of the most accomplished set-pieces in the book, for instance, describes Zeus's pregnancy and birth pangs in delivering, from his very own foot, the infant Dionysus. For when Zeus had foolishly felled Semele, he prudently "plucked" their unborn foetus from her body: "He stooped to pick it up and there it was, the little face staring out of the water drop. His son. With his fingernail he cut his own thigh then, deeply, and deposited it in his tissue. Then he seared it shut again." With coaching from Hera, the mate he ordinarily can't abide (but who is, after all, the goddess of childbirth and marriage), Zeus,while in labor, succumbs to screams and terror altogether unbecoming to his rank. He can't handle being a woman: the pain of it is intolerable to him, and finally more "mythic" by far than any of his so-called magic acts.

But what of Teiresias? A human seer who is sought out for advice by gods and folks alike, he is often frustrated, when not actually punished. His wisdom, though legendary, has little tangible influence. The gods grow angry with him for speaking unsavory truths. His forecasts are too dampening. Out of spite, Hera changes his sex; Zeus immediately hits on him. Really, Teiresias is like a luckless politician who can never quite arrive at the right remedial message for the voters. They love to hate him; he reminds them that, like himself, they are losers.

Yet there is more to the novel than this. Steinbach's lyric imagination denies nothing to her wit. In this she is like Joyce, mingling an ironic undertone with sensuous descriptions of vintage cosmetics, sexual sporting, war, and grief. Plot is shiftily dispersed throughout the book, playfully revising the natural sequence of events, so that the novel reads rather like a long, accelerating prose poem borne forward by its rhythms. The poem is spoken in an elegiac mood, the mood of a Teiresias grown sadly accustomed to the disregarded advantages of his know-how and prestige. No heroes here. Since he is a regretful prophet, his point of view must be intermittently baleful. He is in mourning for everybody, for a collective life that, while experienced intensely, is always about to be no more.

Defending himself before "the great God Zeus," Teiresias avows, "I don't control what I dream." Dreaming is the seer's stock in trade, and it is his curse. For he is mainly a minor figure in the world's larger dream about itself, which is likely to pickle, embalm, confuse. That dream will never end; the seer is privileged, and he is damned. Or, as Steinbach writes in this marvelous book, "The long retrospective of our future lives begins with birth."

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review

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