The Year of Reading Dangerously – Christine Brooke-Rose
There is a game you can play with Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon if, like me, you have the blurb-free Carcanet edition: first read the novel; then check out the blurb for the Dalkey Archive Press version (available online); and, finally, see how much of this description of the text you recognise. This is not to suggest that the blurb of the American edition is in any way inaccurate; rather, Amalgamemnon is not a novel that lends itself to easy précis, or even comprehension. Therefore, rather than attempt my own summary, let’s be up front and start with theirs:
“A woman about to lose her job as a professor of literature and history delivers a passionate, witty and word-mad monologue…blurring the texts of Herodotus with the callers to a talk-radio programme, and blending contemporary history with ancient: fairy tale and literal/invented people (the kidnappers of capitalism, a girl-warrior for Somalia, a pop singer, a political writer), connected by an elaborate mock-genealogy, stretching back to the Greek gods, move in and out of each other’s stories.”
The references to Greek myths come early and frequently, from the punning title – Agamemnon and amalgamate (presumably a reference to the mixture within the text) – to the narrator’s identification with Cassandra. These allusions serve a number of functions (beyond simply emphasising the fictionality of the text). The narrator is indeed a woman who has lost her job as a Humanities professor:
“The programme-cuts will one by one proceed apace, which will entail laying off paying off with luck all the teachers of dead languages like literature philosophy history…”
Although covering all of the Humanities, “dead languages” is likely to lead us to the conclusion that the narrator, who also has the Greek sounding name Mira Enketei, is a professor of Classics. The narrator’s knowledge of Greek myth permeates the text, mixing with numerous contemporary references. Interestingly, Brooke-Rose’s fear that technology would lead to the downgrading of the Humanities is now more relevant than ever. Equally relevant is her questioning of the identity of Europe:
“…shall we ever make Europe?”
Here the allusions to Classical culture provide a historical basis for European identity, as do the numerous references to Charlemagne, who features in the exotic family trees the narrator creates containing names originating in many European languages. Greek myths are also important in one of Brooke-Rose’s other themes, the position of women in society: Cassandra, famously ignored by all and taken slave by Agamemnon after the fall of Troy; Andromeda, chained to a rock; Io and Europa, both seduced by Zeus.
But here lies one of the novel’s difficulties: Brooke-Rose is interested in so many themes, and her text is so allusive (Greek myth is only one strand), that it quickly feels dense as an Amazonian forest. It undeniably contains many fascinating ideas (I particularly liked the kidnapping of capitalism), but so many of them it is hard to feel that any one is done justice, either by author or reader.
The novel also wears it style on its sleeve. Brooke-Rose rejoices in long, often unpunctuated, lists; she loves alliteration, puns and made up words (sexplode, wifman, mimagree, fibstory); and, most alienating of all, the novel is written largely in the future tense:
“In a white village of some unpromised land a group of soldiers will advance cautiously with mine-detectors. Behind them others will be searching derelict houses, machine-gun at the ready.”
Each of these techniques can be effective; together they are overwhelming. Amalgamemnon is without doubt the most ’difficult’ novel I have yet read this year. Short as it is, I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. Yet, strangely, as I was looking over it again to write this, some part of me wanted to read it again.
Danger rating: a blizzard of words and allusions that, while invigorating in short bursts, can be numbing after a while.