It’s an old story, ancient, even, but you know it. The young lovers, tragically separated by death. The hero’s terrifying journey into the Underworld to find his love. The dark moment of sacrifice, and the intercession of the gods. The long, fraught trip back to the world above. And then, just before they emerge, Alice says…
… “Er,” you say. “Alice?”
Yes indeed, Alice. Alice Joy Mulholland: linguist, Scrabble enthusiast, and general all-around nice woman. Also, and this is sort of the key point, house cleaner to the gods. The Greek gods, to be precise. According to Marie Phillips’ recent novel Gods Behaving Badly, they’re alive (so to speak) and well and living in a crumbling house in north London.
Phillips is a new arrival on the publishing front. Very new – Gods is her first novel. Charming, and delightfully comic in tone, it has seen smash success so far. Phillips is just recently back in London after a world tour – the book has sold in dozens of countries. Even that most tangible sign of success, the movie, is in train; Ben Stiller just optioned it for his production company (though I confess that fills me with more than a little fear).
The basic story is fairly simple. The title is entirely descriptive: the book is chock full of gods, and they behave very badly indeed. Artemis is a dog walker; Aphrodite a phone sex operator, Dionysus owns a very popular bar, and Apollo appears on TV as a fake psychic. Eros becomes a born-again Christian; zaniness (or at least guilt) ensues. At any given time, a dozen or more deities are crammed into their shoddy, shabby house… a house which Alice is hired to clean. Apollo is immediately smitten, but Alice has her own hero, Neil. The sun god, as one might expect, does not react well to rejection, with the ultimate result that Neil has to journey to the Underworld in order to find Alice, turn the sun back on, and save the world.
Some might think that any novel through which gods walk must be a fantasy. And certainly the mythology is alive and well, complete with ferryman and three headed dog. Phillips portrayal is amusingly candid. The gods are trapped, selfish, and bored: in short, they’re adolescents. Needy, powerful, and utterly self-absorbed, they are also afraid, an emotion they’re unfamiliar with, and completely vulnerable to.
Some might think that the emergent ideas about faith and loneliness make this a modernist novel. And Phillips, who studied anthropology, has crafted a story which makes some cogent points about the arbitrary nature of religions and the very real power of faith. She also amply demonstrates the terrifying loneliness of immortality.
But the heart of Gods Behaving Badly is a simple love story. Neil and Alice are real people: quirky, shy, and desperately important to one another, even if they don’t know how to say so. They’re not gorgeous, or socially important, or even very noticeable to the larger world. But to one another, they’re everything wonderful. And their love is beautiful in all its simpleness. Hades tells Neil that he won’t let Alice leave the Underworld because she’s a soul, and the more souls he has under his control, the more powerful he is. Taking one away would hurt. “I understand perfectly,” Neil tells him. “It hurt me when you took Alice away.” A short and simple truth: loss hurts. And the gods, to whom time does not matter, have no real understanding how much we humans have to lose. But Neil does.
Later, Hades offers Neil a choice: he can save the world, or he can have Alice back. Like a true hero, Neil doesn’t hesitate: he chooses the world. Because “everybody loves somebody” the way he loves Alice. And because Alice would want him to save as many as he could.
The gods relent, as they do, and Neil and Alice are allowed to leave the Underworld (precedent having been established by Orpheus, and all). Only this time, Alice keeps reminding Neil that she’s there, so he’s not tempted to turn around. Level-headed and practical, that’s Alice. Because she knows how much is at stake. It’s kind of a human thing.
Chris Szego wishes more gods were on TV.