Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Zany Genius of Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes

Available now. Go. Read it!
My teenage daughter happened to walk by as I opened the package containing this book. One look and she ripped it out of my hands, exclaiming, "OMG, this is awesome!"

"I know," I said. "The publisher sent it to me so that I can review it."  But she wasn't paying any attention to me. She had whipped out her phone and was sending the image of the cover to her friends and texting them about it.

We read excerpts out loud to each other and ended up laughing so hard, we were wiping tears away with our forearms. 

She then took it to school to show all her friends and to share with her Latin teacher. It was a while before I saw it again.

But when I did, I confirmed my first impression--this book is a riot and a great antidote to PC versions of ancient myths. The author, Cory O'Brien, is proud of his retellings of the myths, well aware that some stick-in-the-muds will bemoan them as an example of "the death of intellectualism." 

"Myths have suffered from severe intellectualism overdose," he explains in the introduction. "Everybody's always studying them in school or reading watered-down versions of them to little kids, and what that means is that hardly anybody has the time to actually sit down and look at how f*cking funny these things are."


The cover itself--with it's middle school-like scribblings of Apollo in a Led Zepplin t-shirt and Zeus with an erm, "disturbance" in his nether regions--sets the tone. Yes, it's totally immature but that's what makes it so damn fabulous. Because, let's be honest, most of us really are middle-schoolers trapped in grown-up bodies (okay, I'll just speak for myself then).

Of course, with a subtitle of "A No-Bullsh*t Guide to World Mythology," you know from the get-go that O'Brien doesn't shy away from the bawdy, batsh*t craziness inherent in most myths. But here's what I discovered--the stories are way funnier if you already know the originals. So, of course, the Greek, Egyptian and Judeo-Christian retellings often had me in stiches. But the Japanese, Hindu, Chinese and African myths? They were funny, but I found myself wishing I knew the original versions so I could compare them against O'Brien's irreverent retellings. Which, of course, has inspired me to read the original stories. See how that works?

The young author is a grad student (MFA in writing) in Chicago and it's clear he's mastered the art of a unique writing "voice." He was kind enough to answer some of my questions:

Q:  Why myths? 

A:  My blog started as sort of a joke between friends. I used to assault this one friend of
The young turk's twitter: @tachaberdash
mine on gchat to yell different myths at her, and finally she was just like "you should make a blog where you do this." (presumably to get me to stop bothering her). I thought it was a great idea because as far as I could tell, no one was doing it. Every re-telling I read seemed like it was holding back, like they were still trying to retain some level of respect for the original text, and where's the fun in that? So I pretty much transposed these mythical chatlogs directly onto a website, started getting attention from fancy folks (including Neil Gaiman), and suddenly Perigee was offering me a contract and re-telling myths became my for-real job.

Q:  When did you become obsessed with myths? What was it about them that hooked you?

A:  My dad is a professional storyteller. He has a children's theater company in LA called "We Tell Stories," and they do myths from all different cultures. So I grew up hearing and seeing those stories, in the fast, loose, silly way they did them, and I guess they kinda burrowed into my brain. I mean, myths are stories from back before we had all the rules about how stories should go. They're pure entertainment, stripped of any pretense of subtlety. I think part of it is just that I wish I was writing way back then, when you could still get away with that stuff.

Q:  What's your favorite one in general? In the book?

A:  The big bang. I like it because no one realizes it's a myth yet. I'm not saying it's not a true thing that happened. I don't really have an opinion on that. I'm saying that the way it's explained in layman's terms, the narrative version, is doing the exact same kind of work that creation myths have done for thousands of years. Ovid's creation myth at the beginning of the Metamorphoses uses all the latest science of his time: Pythagorean elements, a spherical earth... The methods we use to gather information about the world have changed, for sure, but the way we understand the information hasn't, and it's cool to be able to watch that pattern unfold in my lifetime.

Q:  What myth did you cut from the book because your editor/publisher said you had to even though you begged and pleaded?

A:  Elvis. I had Elvis in there and the book was too long so I took him out. He's the best modern myth we've got: He revolutionized music, he's a sex hero, he dresses in crazy god-like costumes, and people say that instead of dying he was taken to space by aliens. People make pilgrimages to his old house to pray at his grave, too. Good stuff, but I had to cut it. I put it up on the site though, so now everyone can enjoy it for free! Here’s the Elvis myth:  http://bettermyths.com/elvis-lives/

Q: Where do you go from here? (career wise; will this be a series?)

A: Japan. I graduate in May so I'm going to go get the hell out of the country and immerse myself in a culture that maybe doesn't worship the Greeks so damn much. Career-wise, I guess it depends on Perigee. I've got plenty more material if they decide I'm worth the money. I desperately want to do a book-length retelling of the whole Arthurian Legend.

Q: Have you gotten any push-back (i.e., serious name calling? death threats?) from religious groups? Scientologists?

A: Nah, I've been lucky. The most I've gotten is a half-coherent paragraph on one of my bible myths about how I "got it all wrong." I actually get quite a few Christians who say they dig my re-tellings of their mythology. The thing about it is, I'm not distorting the stories when I retell them. Most of the humor comes from making the ridiculousness of the original story as clear and apparent as possible. And I think it's hard to get mad about that, especially if you know the original text. I don't really have an agenda here. I'm not trying to tear down religion (as you'll see if you read the epilogue of my book). But Joseph Campbell points out (and Tibetan Buddhism, for one, agrees) that the myths are only the stepping stones that allow initiates to approach the higher understanding that the religion has to offer. They're supposed to be ridiculous. They never weren't. As for Scientology, I think Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Anonymous took all the heat there is to take on that one. I feel pretty safe.

Q:  I noticed Muslim and Christian myths were not included...any particular reason[s]?

A:  Mostly a lack of knowledge. Yes, I know the story of Jesus (I've done a video re-telling of the book of Matthew on my site) but that's too long for a book like this. And I know absolutely nothing about the Qur'an. (Something I'll eventually remedy) I love, absolutely love the Arabian Nights, but my rationale for leaving those particular stories out was that I'm hoping to do a book of just those some day. And maybe a book on Jesus, too...

Q: What are some of the funniest/favorite responses you've had to different myths on your blog?

I think my favorites are the people who accuse me of destroying literature/culture. Every once in a while I get a comment like that, and it starts a flamewar that lasts a couple months. People jump up to defend me and it's all very heartwarming. But what's funny about it to me is that I'm proud to be destroying culture. Living culture feeds on dead culture. You keep replacing and updating pieces of your old Victorian house, eventually you're going to wake up to find that you're not living in the same house anymore, and that's a good thing, because the plumbing in those old houses is terrible.

Q: What are you doing when you're not posting/publishing?

A: I am building a pair of gloves that will allow the user to type by touching fingers to palms in different combinations. I am also writing a book of fiction, with no myths in. I am teaching a class on retelling mythology and I am sewing a jacket made entirely of pockets. I am doing too many things, mainly.

Recommendation: Get this book and read it aloud with friends. Preferably over drinks. Get it from your local independent bookstore or order it online.

Full disclosure: as stated above, the publisher sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 


Amalia Dillin said...

Love this interview, and I love what he's doing, too! I died laughing at several of his Norse myth retellings! :)

Narukami said...

This book does look like a lot of fun -- must add it to my ever expanding Amazon list.

Off to Japan is he? The Japanese have plenty of myths he can immerse himself into, as well as a culture with all sorts of intricacies that should keep him both busy and amused for years. Perhaps forever. After all, the Japanese have 98,000 gods of war.

I see another book in the near future.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

GREAT interview! I'm off to watch some of his blog posts now... :) e

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks for commenting, guys.

@Narukami--98,000 gods of war???? What, one for each soldier? Geez!