A retelling of the story of Medea and her exploits with Jason and the Argonauts.
Vann’s (Aquarium, 2015, etc.) newest work traverses well-trod territory: he’s taken Medea as his subject, the mythological character famous for, among other things, murdering her own children. Actually, the circumstances of those murders vary widely among the numerous ancient accounts. Maybe she hadn’t meant to kill them; maybe it was an accident; etc., etc. Vann manages to make the story his own. His book begins long before that infamous conclusion, with Medea’s flight from her homeland with Jason, seeker of the Golden Fleece, and his men, the Argonauts. Then there is their perilous journey back to Iolcus, where Jason’s cruel uncle, Pelias, is king. In Vann’s telling, Jason is too weak to usurp the throne, despite Medea’s urging, and the two end up enslaved for the next six years. There are other adventures, too, all of which are filtered through Medea’s singular consciousness. She’s prone to spectacular acts of violence. Before the book even begins, she’s hacked her brother to pieces. Vann relates all this in a prose style that aims for lyricism but rather quickly falls short of it. There’s a sameness to his sentences, an odd reluctance to use the verb “to be,” that quickly becomes tiresome. You long for a complete sentence. The fragments stack up: “White glare each morning an oblivion. Distance gone. Shape and shadow and being. Eyes without use, and this water an open desert with no refuge.” Unfortunately, Vann, a former Guggenheim fellow, is not at his best here. His fragments are interspersed with bits of dialogue that at times sound suspiciously contemporary: “Anyway,” Jason says to Medea at one point. “Leave me alone.” Soon after, brimful with rage and the desire for revenge, she thinks, “she will give him plenty to remember.”
In his ambitious new version of an ancient classic, Vann sacrifices clarity for lyricism but falls short of both.