Artemis is walking the dogs to get out of the house. Apollo is shagging Aphrodite for the millionth time with another million to go (they’re immortal, after all). Old man Zeus is holed up in the attic watching TV, and his wife Hera hasn’t spoken in years. Demeter’s in the garden, Hephaestus is repairing the house, Hermes rides a motorcycle to collect dead souls and Dionysus is mixing songs for his nightclub. Eros is a Jesus freak and oh yes, Ares spends his days fomenting wars in faraway countries.
“ ‘You need a shave,’ said Artemis, standing in the doorway.
“ ‘Mmm,’ said Ares, without turning his head. ‘This War on Terror isn’t producing enough casualties. Bringing in Iran is the obvious choice, but I don’t think they’ve got enough firepower yet. I wonder if I could somehow antagonize Japan?’ ”
The quote is from the novel, “Gods Behaving Badly,” by first-time British author Marie Phillips. In her book the Greek gods are living unhappily together, crowded into a squalid flat full of uneaten food (they don’t eat human food; they just like to look at it) and dusty cobwebs.
“The family had moved there in 1665,” she writes, “when the plague was keeping property prices rock bottom, and just before the destruction of the Great Fire sent them spiraling upwards again. This had been a typically canny piece of financial engineering by... Athena, the goddess of wisdom.”
The gods have always behaved badly, of course, but in the old days humans believed in them, tolerated their faults and feared their arbitrary power. The popularity of monotheistic faiths robbed them of much of their strength.
In “Gods Behaving Badly” Phillips wallows in the fun of imagining Greek gods on the downlow. She spent some considerable time arriving at this idea.
In a short essay called On Writing and Thinking and Lying Down, Phillips says, “I rewrite so obsessively that my computer is littered with files labeled ‘final draft’ ‘final final draft,’ ‘absolutely the last draft,’ and ‘absolutely the last draft with changes.’ The book that I end up with bears little relation to my opening draft or even to the idea that began it.”
On YouTube, in another interview, Phillips continues: “In the first draft (these gods) were very powerful.... I was trying to satirize organized religion a bit, and that didn’t really work for me. And then I realized, of course, it’s more realistic... it’s more fun, to imagine them having been forgotten. They really could be living in a run-down flat in London. It really COULD be happening this way.”
“Gods Behaving Badly” is a great deal of fun to read. Juxtaposed with the unruly and selfish gods are two highly ordinary humans, Alice and Neil, who are slowly falling in love with each other. Alice finds herself the obsessive object of Apollo’s love and Zeus’s anger, expressed as lightning bolts from the sky that kill her dead. With the help of the gods Neil undertakes a quest to bring Alice back from the underworld and, by the way, to relight the Sun, accidently blown out by Apollo.
It turns out one entrance to Hades is located at Angel tube station on Upper Street in the London district of Islington. Hermes uses it all the time to transport souls. It’s down the stairs on a secret platform “on the other side of (a) wall at the bottom that leads to a train to the underworld.”
That particular train is likely to remind readers of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express. Even if American readers can’t possibly decipher all the inside jokes, “Gods Behaving Badly” will be a quick and delicious read.
“Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips. Back Bay Books paperback $13.99. ISBN 9780316067638
A non-visual interview with Marie Phillips
TV interview with the author
Islington described on Wikipedia with literary references to writers Phillips admires, such as Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams. Adams lived in Islington; Gaiman named a character after the Angel tube station: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islington