Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 3

November 3, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The Golden Mean. Annabel Lyon; Random House Canada, $32.95 cloth, 294 pp., 978-0-307-35620-8.

imagePrevious Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction (The Best Thing for You, nominee)

City of Vancouver Book Award (The Best Thing for You, nominee)

Danuta Gleed Award (Oxygen, nominee)

From the publisher: “Exploring a fabled time and place, Annabel Lyon tells her story, breathtakingly, in the earthy, frank, and perceptive voice of Aristotle himself. With sensual and muscular prose, she explores how Aristotle’s genius touched the boy who would conquer the known world. And she reveals how we still live with the ghosts of both men.”

From reviews: The Golden Mean is a crisply written, painstakingly researched book, and Lyon ably inhabits ‘the greatest mind of all time’ – hardly a mean feat. This, then, is a virtuous work, though fibrous, fat-free and rarely what you’d call fun. But that is probably exactly as Aristotle would have wanted it.” – Cynthia Macdonald, The Globe and Mail

“Lyon’s singular gifts for description, character development, and plotting are on full display here, informing her unique and creative story. The novel is deep and rich in thought and accomplishment, yet it reads with the calming ease and influence of a cool summer breeze.” – Edward Carson, Quill & Quire (starred review)

The Golden Mean is certainly an audacious attempt to create a flesh and blood Aristotle, with intimate glances into his psyche. Again, Lyon takes risks with technique in pursuit of immediacy, chiefly in her use of present tense through most of the narrative. This prevalence of first-person present tense is infrequently used in fiction, and there’s a reason for it. It encourages self-consciousness on the part of the narrator, it tends to slow narrative momentum and it flattens out a multi-layered awareness of time. In this case it heightens the already formidable difficulty of creating believable historical characters in a world that is not our world.” – Philip Marchand, National Post

My reaction: When one conceives of the philosopher Aristotle, one is likely to imagine a noble, white-bearded man standing at the head of an auditorium and pronouncing carefully on matters erudite and weighty. One is not likely to imagine a man suffering from a cold and “constantly blowing great green skeins of snot from [his] nose.” Nor is one likely to picture the venerable man of ideas doing something as primal as performing cunnilingus on his wife:

I put my tongue just there, on the pomegranate seed, and the tendons in her groin go taut as bowstrings. Pity and fear, purgation, relief. My tongue, working. A substance like the white of an egg.

The Aristotle of The Golden Mean is earthy and vulgar, swearing up a storm and content to describe the way in which he engages in all manner of human excretion and evacuation – spitting, pissing, shitting. He is also unrepentantly sexist – he believes that “[t]he hierarchy of the state mimics that of the household, where men lead and women and slaves obey, as nature has fitted them to do.” He is startled when his mistress claims to have had an orgasm: “My father had taught me what she claimed to experience was not physically possible.” (He performs cunnilingus on his wife not to give her pleasure, but to investigate her secretions.)

In other words, Lyon goes out of her way to humanize Aristotle, to bring him down to size. So, too, Alexander (who will become Alexander the Great), the philosopher’s charge, who as a young man is almost equal parts bravado and insecurity. Lyon also intimates that each of her characters suffers from mental afflictions that have only recently been given names: bipolar disorder in the philosopher’s case, post-traumatic stress disorder in the soldier’s.

But this insistence on her characters’ earthiness does not prevent the kind of lyrical turn of phrase that is typical of many historical novels: “The first snow of the season comes whispering late one grey afternoon …” Nor does it save us from passages that devolve into didactic disquisitions on the history of the period:

The first king was from Argos. A Greek, though the people aren’t. Enormous wealth here: timber, wheat, corn, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, copper, iron, silver, gold. Virtually all they have to import is olives. Too cold for olives this far north, mostly; too mountainous. And did you know that most of the Athenian navy is built from Macedonian timber?

The Golden Mean is a difficult book to like. Lyon’s technique – narrating the story in the first person and using predominantly the present tense – is solid, though for a writer who has been almost universally praised as an exceptional craftsperson, the repeated appearances of misplaced modifiers (“Pythias stood in the doorway with me in her new dress”; “[Callisthenes will] serve Alexander on his expeditions as official historian”) are distracting at best.

No doubt the novel contains memorable scenes: the young Alexander severing the head from a corpse to use as a prop in a play because he feels it will heighten verisimilitude, or an extended sequence involving Aristotle’s experience as a battlefield medic, the apotheosis of which is a gruesome set-piece in which the philosopher’s quest for empirical knowledge and the soldier’s bloodlust find common ground. But despite Aristotle’s moods, which he tells us “[whiplash] from one condition to the next, from black melancholy to golden joy,” corresponding passion on the narrative level is only intermittent. Aristotle preaches the virtues of the golden mean, the middle ground between two opposing extremes. Lyon’s novel wants to traffic in extremes of emotion and action; more often it seems to occupy a kind of “muddy middle range,” to quote one recent critic of CanLit.


One Response to “Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 3”
  1. karmicangel says:

    Great interview with Annabelle: