So it seems that literary post-apocalyptic narrative is undergoing something of a renaissance here in the early 21st Century. The genre’s most famous works (Earth Abides, A Canticle for Leibowitz,Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, maybe Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren etc. and etc.) set early standards of poetic and intellectual brilliance so dazzlingly high that it was beginning to look like nothing would ever challenge them, and that perhaps the genre itself was imaginatively all used-up. Thankfully this appears not to be the case, as starting with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2006, the floodgates have opened on post-apocalyptica, and recent years have produced some of the field’s finest books, notably China Miéville’s Railsea, Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World, Michael Cisco’s modernist weird-fest The Narrator, and – less successful but nonetheless prominent – The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.
Yup, the genre is definitely on a roll, and Marly Youmans’ Thaliad is no exception; in fact, it’s one of the best examples I’ve ever read. Thaliad has a commonality with The Road in that it comes from a literary tradition decidedly outside of the SFF mainstream: it’s a mythopoeic epic poem about seven children attempting to survive the aftermath of some non-disclosed apocalyptic event referred to only as ‘The Fire’. One of the children, a girl named Thalia, soon emerges as the de facto leader of the group, and together they settle in the ruins of an abandoned village on the edge of lake Glimmerglass (which a quick Google search informed me is James Fennimore Cooper’s alternate name for Otsego Lake in New York). What follows is a desperate and genuinely moving cling to life that’s equal parts bleak and uplifting, harrowing and hopeful.
A lazy crib would be: ‘The Road meets Lord of the Flies in verse’, but such a label, however succinct, fails to encapsulate the sheer inventiveness and lyrical exuberance of Youmans’ writing. Who, for example, could resist such beautiful and strange and violent language as:
Nothing could have halted them from verdict
And vengeance, save angelic messengers
Arrived by unexpected thunderbolt.
A wail went out from Thalia and streamed
Across the mire, across the slough of blood
It’s structurally formal, but the poetry never feels rigidly metered or constrained; a feat entirely due to the beauty, flow and vitality of the writing. Sure it’s heavily stylised in the way you’d expect from epic verse that channels, among others, Homer; but the writing isn’t at all arch or overbearing. Furthermore, the book has some strikingly novelistic traits: chapter divisions, direct speech, and a first person narrator, all of which should act as a helpful way-in for those readers more familiar with novels than poetry.
Thaliad is composed in blank verse (that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter), and there’s a definite tension between the book’s future-looking, Science Fictional premise, and the New Formalist way it eschews free verse in favour of this more traditional approach to rhythm and prescribed syllable count. Wrapped up in this tension between the book’s setting and its form are Youmans’ playful references to the canon of classical epic poetry. The opening line, for example, “It was the age beyond the ragged time” references the first line of The Iliad, with “age” and “ragged” bearing more than a passing phonic and visual resemblance to Homer’s first-line repetition of “rage” (as it’s translated in English, obviously); and this serves as a definite tonal signifier for the poem that follows. Similarly, such chapter headings as ‘Seven Against the World’ make reference to Greek Tragic drama (as do the frequent allusions to masks), and the text itself is replete with lively puns, such as this clever nod to both the Icarus story and the fabled fluid that supposedly ran in the veins of the Greek Gods (the ‘ichor’):
The heavens, ichorous, let down a rain
That seemed as if it could have been the blood
Of dying Gods dreamed up in ancient worlds.
The most striking Classical reference is, of course, in the book’s name. Using the titular suffix ‘-iad’ would have been an act of pure hubris in the hands of less able writers, and initially I was sceptical, expecting Thaliad to be open to accusations of self-aggrandising pomposity and stylistic misappropriation; after all, calling your book ‘Thaliad’ and hence inviting comparison with Homer could be mistaken as a very cocky move indeed. Happily, there’s a fantastic inter-textual rationale behind this book’s title and its neo-classical form. The narrator (and supposed writer) of Thaliad, Emma, is speaking 60 years after the events she describes, and learnt her trade as a poet-historian by salvaging what books she could (presumably the Classics) from the ruined world’s libraries. So Thaliad, then, fictionalises the story of its own creation; the book itself is supposedly a piece of history, written as a record of the first years following ‘The Fire’.
It’s not unlike China Miéville’s post-apocalyptic landscape the ‘Railsea’, whose inhabitants have re-ordered society through a kind of collective performance of Moby Dick. The world of Thaliad likewise addresses the problem of overcoming the apocalypse through an act of textual salvage: Emma and Thalia have re-constructed the world’s history via this filter of Classic literature, and the results are surprisingly uplifting. It really works, but only because the post-apocalyptic setting provides suitable thematic gravitas: no other genre of 21st Century fiction could get away with appropriating the language of classic Greek literature without simultaneously committing some enormous faux pas.
But don’t worry if Homer et al isn’t your particular thing. Thaliad doesn’t pre-suppose an understanding of Greek literature, and knowledge of the Classics is not a pre-requisite to fully enjoying this poem. The book’s real appeal is its language, its characters and the heartbreaking decisions they find themselves making. Marly Youmans takes great pains to ensure that Thaliad isn’t one of those post-apocalyptic narratives whose characters are mere passive bystanders swept along by Big, Important, Global events beyond their control. Choices made and not-made are the thematic heart of the poem, and for me the book’s most significant event occurs at its very beginning, when the children make their first collective decision: to abandon one of their number, Gabriel, a boy who won’t stop crying:
They shouted at him that he’d learn a thing,
Or two, to not be so unendingly
Unbearable, to weep as all could weep
But did not do.
[…] They drove away.
They drove away! And left that little boy
Alone with bridges, river, blowing ash,
Immensity. He was eleven, a child
It’s in passages like this that Youmans’ writing really shines. There’s a rare use of rhyme here (‘two’ with ‘do’), but it’s buried and makes you trip over your own tongue. The heavy mid-line caesura stalls the previously graceful, swift rhythm, as does the prominent repetition of “They drove away”. In essence, the poetry wilfully disrupts itself in sympathy to the unnatural, unsettling events taking place; the poem’s voice is mimetic of its subject – it’s brilliant.
The six remaining children soon realise what an appalling thing they’ve done and turn around, hoping to find Gabriel once more:
Three times they drove the distance of the bridge,
But nothing did they see, nothing at all
Of Gabriel the weeper, vanished, gone
As if a messenger had flown to Earth
And snatched him up to ashless paradise.
The abandonment of Gabriel influences the moral identities of the children more so than any other of the book’s events. Chapters and decades later, it remains the significant episode of their lives, presumably because, unlike ‘The Fire’, discarding Gabriel is a tragedy of their own contriving. If the apocalypse can be read as a second Fall (and there’s plenty of Biblical imagery at play: “There is no peaceful land, / And gates of Eden long ago clanged shut”), this first decision made by the children is definitely their loss of innocence. On numerous occasions various speakers equate this early naivety with all their future tragedies:
- For where is Gabriel, that child of light,
Who might have been the father of the world? –
Perhaps the sin of Gabriel, forlorn,
Abandoned on the track has weighted us
Like pocket stones in deepening water.
If you want to be twee about it, you could probably argue that Thaliad functions as a metaphor for the end of childhood and the violent emergence into the adult realm of moral responsibility. I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you really must.
And while I’m wary of claiming that Thaliad espouses any particular moral message or ideology, there’s a graspable celebration of life, literature and re-birth that belies the oftentimes dark and violent nature of its plot.
It would be remiss of me at this point not to mention Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who as well as designing the book’s cover, has illustrated small iconographic vignettes that head each of Thaliad’s twenty four chapters (note: the same number of books divide The Iliad). These striking black and white collages definitely influenced my conception of Thaliad’s world, and the grey-tone in which they’re rendered acts as a satisfying visual call-back to the descriptions of ash and rubble that dominate much of the poem’s imagery. As well as being unusually beautiful, Thaliad’s artwork is loaded with symbolism and connotation. The image that heads chapter twenty three, for example, depicts two of the children (now fully-grown) fighting over Thalia. The icon itself is a silhouette-esque depiction of two men locked in combat, with their swords provocatively placed so as to resemble the positioning of erect phalluses in a way that alludes to the lust that is the deeper subtext and reasoning behind their feud.
Thaliad is an extraordinary, deeply moving and fiercely intelligent poem, and I hope I’ve given some indication of its many achievements. I’ve not written much about the plot because, frankly, it’s difficult to do so without resorting to massive spoilers, but suffice it to say that several of the story’s twists are genuinely shocking, genuinely original. Its greatest accomplishment is the way it successfully melds so many disparate literary traditions into something cohesive, without seams. References to Diana Wynne Jones can be found adjacent nods to Ovid or Cormac McCarthy and Andrew Marvell. It plays with form in memorable and mischievous ways (the first fourteen lines of chapter 18, for example, could easily be isolated as a kind of weird blank verse bucolic sonnet), and it always works. Thaliad is a convergence of genre spaces, and we Science Fiction fans, sometimes so rigid and stubborn in our reading, would do well to embrace it.