David Vann’s “Bright Air Black” retells the tale of Medea and Jason and the Argonauts. Vann’s version is not modernized, but he throws in some realistic touches instead of mythological beasts. It’s set in Medea’s time, about 1250 BC, around 800 years before the Euripides play “Medea.” The novel’s title comes from the Chorus’ lines toward the end of the Robin Robertson translation of “Medea.”
Vann’s story is told through the eyes of Medea, the barbarian priestess who loves Jason. But this is no story of romance. It’s about a woman who believes she’s descended from gods – Helios, the sun, is her grandfather. A destroyer of kings and would-be gods, Medea wants a world not ruled by men. She rules by instilling fear in the men around her, and intends to become queen of Iolcus through Jason, although she will be the one who really possesses power.
This version of the story begins in Colchis with a theft, followed by battles, enslavement and freedom. It ends in Korinth, Greece, with two killings. It’s a difficult story to read for a couple of reasons. Some scenes are brutally graphic, bloody and gruesome; and the fragmented, sometimes verbless sentences make the reading even harder.
The story begins horrifically enough with Medea throwing pieces of her brother Apsyrtus’ body into the sea as she, Jason, and the Argonauts flee her father, King Aeetes. They’ve stolen the golden fleece and sail away from Medea’s home in Colchis to Jason’s promised kingdom in Iolcus. The blood from Apsyrtus’ body is supposed to thicken the sea and slow Aeetes’ pursuing ship. Aeetes will be further slowed as he retrieves his son’s body parts. If that’s not gruesome enough: Medea will later have sex with a dead king and coerce another king’s daughters to dismember their father and chew his testicles.
Vann, an American who teaches in England, adds some realism to the old myth. Instead of the fleece being the hide of a golden ram, it is, as Medea well knows, just one of many fleeces: “untanned hides sifting the heavy dust of gold from every mountain stream.” And in the course of the chase, Vann has the Argonauts defecate over the side of the ship so we get a good idea of the conditions and the foul air on the Argo. Sheesh!
Not only does Medea (and Vann) downplay mythological creatures, so does King Pelias, who sent Jason on the quest for the fleece. Pelias laughs at Jason when he tells the king that he had to “yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls” and “sow the teeth of a serpent, teeth that grew into an army of earthborn men.”
“And what about the dragon guarding the golden fleece?” Pelias mocks.
As for the truncated sentences, fragments without a verb – those may appeal to the “doing something new with language” crowd. But Vann, who’s translated Beowulf, says he patterned the sounds after Old English meter. The Germanic component “seemed like a good language for brutality.”
So when you read:
“Night prolonged, Hekate hearing. Medea no longer a maiden, her blood mixed with her brother’s and dripping into the sea” and “Stars above, no cloud. Not a storm that can be understood, not cold, only Hekate’s hot breath and will, and Medea consumed” and “Lavender flesh so soft and impossible, no surface to it, no underside, patterned through. True flower” you tend to add verbs and other missing words from beginning to end, as the novel doesn’t quite succeed as a prose poem.
If you’re willing to supply absent words as you read; if you’ve a strong stomach, and are into mythology but could do without griffins, dragons or fire-breathing bulls, you might enjoy this story of Medea, whose evil and barbarity are nearly without peer.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/
“Bright Air Black”
By David Vann
Black Cat, 256 pages