Time for One Thing: The worst mother who ever lived and other light reading

Three new books -- 'Medea' by Christa Wolf, 'Hacienda' by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran and 'The Autobiography of Red, A Novel in Verse' by Anne Carson -- take on stories of mythic proportions. Reviewed by Salon staffers Kate Moses, Dawn MacKeen and Karen Templer; introduction by Kate Moses


Kate Moses
April 28, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

You probably thought your mythology days were over; how could you ever beat
the ninth-grade titillation of hopefully searching the pages of "Oedipus
Rex" for an actual sex scene between the king and his mother? But wait a
minute -- doesn't Siddhartha seem like a crybaby compared to the patience
you display when your 4-year-old regales you with yet another plot synopsis
of the latest episode of "Muppet Babies"? If you have the right attitude,
mythology can be even more gratifying now that you're an adult, especially
if you're a parent. And if you're a parent with a spouse, mythology is the
key to understanding the meaning of your pathetic mortal life. Here are a
few of my favorites:

1. The Myth of How My Body Used To Be.
I don't like to tell this to most
people, but I used to have an amazing body. This is an especially
satisfying myth for me, since I was already the worn-out mother of a
2-year-old boy when I met my present husband. Boy, was my body perfect
before my son was born! Just like Kathy Ireland. All of my friends'
bodies were perfect, too. "Hey, look," said my friend Chris the other day
while turning the pages of Mirabella. "Remember, I looked just like Cindy Crawford before I got pregnant with Ned?"

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2. The Myth of How Exciting Our Marriage Was/Our Individual Past Lives Were
Before We Had These Children.

Our house was always spotless. There was that
hilarious asparagus caper, and it was so embarrassing to explain it to the
police, standing there in our bathrobes ... We should have tape-recorded all
those dinner parties, we could write a book! It was the best car we ever
had, that Kharmann Ghia, and there wasn't a scratch on it. My husband's
previous girlfriends were all Swedish, or they were Playboy centerfolds from
the "Women of Astrophysics" spread. I dated that prince for years, and even
after I had to end the engagement his family begged me to keep the jewelry.

3. Myth of Paranoia, Patron Goddess of Cleanliness.
I KNOW he loads the dishwasher wrong so he'll never have to do it again.

Developing a personal mythology is entertaining for a while, but if you
get tired of manipulating the lives of the mortals who worship you, you
might want to find out what the other goddesses, muses and monsters are up
to. Three new books of mythic proportions do just that, and unless you're a
winged beast with a volcano fetish, a schoolgirl married to a mad nobleman
from South America or you've got a centuries-old reputation as the worst
mother who ever lived, we're pretty sure these stories won't compete with
your epic style.


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Medea


BY CHRISTA WOLF | DOUBLEDAY | 192 PAGES
BY KAREN TEMPLER | You know what I really love? I love it when a clever writer comes along and
obliterates a saga we've been telling for thousands of years, offering new
perspectives, breathing new life into stories that are sagging from
overuse. I thought nothing could top John Gardner's "Grendel," wherein the
Beowulf epic was retold from the point of view of the Savage Beast, making
the reader feel almost criminal for having ever lent credence to Beowulf's
version. But Christa Wolf's "Medea" makes that look like child's play.

Remember Medea? In Greek legend, she's the princess of Colchis who betrayed
her father, cast a spell on his servants and (in
some versions) killed her little brother, all for the love of Jason. She
then helps to steal the Golden Fleece from her own people and flees with
Jason and
his Argonauts. She later gave a dress to Glauce, Princess of Corinth
(whom Jason planned to marry in order to become heir to the Corinthian
throne), which burst into flame. Glauce threw herself into a well and
drowned, whereupon Medea killed her own children and fled the city of
Corinth, leaving Jason to wither and die under the prow of his own ship.

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The tale's been told, with some degree of variation, a thousand times. But
in essentially every version Medea is an undisputed force of evil. So when
I read Margaret Atwood's introduction to this new rendition and discovered
that Christa Wolf
intended to make me believe Medea was nothing if not a victim, while at the
same time turning Medea's story into a pseudo-civics lesson for all
generations, I was skeptical. To say she pulled it off would be
quite the understatement.

In Wolf's richly updated version, told through the voices of several of the major characters, Medea is gracious and beautiful, while
also a talented sorceress who uses her powers as she was taught. She comes
from a savage land where the bodies of dead men are hung in sacks from the
trees. She fled
because her father had betrayed his people; the hapless Jason was simply
a convenient escape. She only fell in love and married him once they'd left
Colchis with the fleece and their lives barely in tact. When they arrived
at Corinth, Jason was taken in by the king while Medea and their twin sons
were banished from the castle. (It never occurred to Jason to join them.)

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In the book's first chapter Medea tells us, in her strong, sad voice, that
she's discovered the king of Corinth's dirty little secret -- the
glittering city is actually no less savage than her homeland.
Sickened by her discovery, Medea has no intention of sharing what she knows and in fact makes repeated attempts to help the Corinthians and to make a life for herself and her children in this strange land. But
once her enemies learn of her discovery, they concoct a plot to turn even her own loyal
followers against her.

The book's language is elegant and subtly old-worldy, although an
occasional "Hey Jason ..." jars you back into the 20th century. Whether
it's the
fault of Wolf's original German manuscript or John Cullen's translation,
these lapses are thankfully few. And while it may sound hard to believe, the contrast of Wolf's dark-skinned, wooly-haired, barbaric
Colchians and her sparkling white Corinthian capitalists is never heavy-handed in its modern-day
lesson-ness. But the
book's greatest success is the complex and intriguing Medea herself. After
knowing her story for 20-odd years, I feel I just finally met her.


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The Hacienda


BY LISA ST. AUBIN DE TERAN | LITTLE, BROWN | 342 PAGES
BY DAWN MacKEEN | Under the shade of the jacaranda trees and avocado groves, under the
influence of medicinal cures and tradition, the narrative of Lisa St. Aubin
de Teran's "The Hacienda" grows. In this lushly written memoir, St. Aubin de
Teran recounts the years she lived in Venezuela, a tale so much like
fiction it's hard to believe that her story took place in the tangible
world and not on some surreal plane of her imagination.

The people who lived on the hacienda distrusted the road that weaved
through its land almost as much as they distrusted St. Aubin de Teran when
she first arrived from England. As a child bride who had married the most
eligible bachelor of the land, Don Jaime Teran -- a reclusive aristocrat 20
years her senior -- she neither spoke proper Spanish nor came from a family
that anyone knew of, and was looked at as "a homunculus, a life-form which
had sprouted spontaneously from the mounds of vagasse." In a society
where the people lived in the same way their parents and
grandparents before them had been living -- under the reign of the Teran
name -- destined roles were everything.

St. Aubin de Teran unfolds her quixotic world as the wife of the
patriarch of an informal caste system. It was filled evenly with her
husband's long silences and rages, and the languid hours she spent alone in
a tin-roofed, cement-floored cottage by the side of a river. Her voice
remains steady, almost placid, as she describes the intense solitude of her
depressing days. She passes most of her time in the company of two beagles
and a pet vulture named Napoleon -- the most loyal friend she has on the
hacienda -- until she becomes pregnant, which finally opens the doors to
the closed-in Andean community. She writes of her ride home from the
hospital after her pregnancy test: "As we drove past the clump of banana
palms that I knew to be the frontier post of the hacienda, I noticed
for the first time since I had arrived, I didn't get the sensation of being
taken back to prison after a turn round the yard. I was carrying inside me
a way out of the silence."

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St. Aubin de Teran details her struggle for acceptance and then her
powerful rise while weaving in tales of customary local inflexibility and
familial strife -- such as that of the father who accidentally poisons his son green
because he can't read the witch doctor's deadly prescription. And subtly she
paints the cycle of dependency between the people and the land and how,
during the seven years that she lives at the hacienda, they
decay together to the point that they cannot continue to co-exist.

From this engrossing place, where magic hangs in the air like the most
humid of days, the author builds a moving portrait of a young woman alone
in a place that took her years to understand. Throughout the book St.
Aubin de Teran excerpts diarylike letters she sent to her mother,
describing her everyday life. While these letters sometimes slow down the
memoir, briefly repeating details already mentioned, they also serve as
necessary road signs -- they are the author's and the reader's reality
checks, reminding both that the hacienda isn't merely a mythical place
visited only via someone's prose, but instead a real place St. Aubin de
Teran initially reached by boat, and returned to through memory.


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The Autobiography of Red, A Novel in Verse


BY ANNE CARSON | ALFRED A. KNOPF | 149 PAGES
BY KATE MOSES | In her previous three books, Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson
fearlessly melded the seemingly incongruous elements of Western canonical
references and contemporary autobiography, making each seem both fresh and
unquestionably related. In "Glass, Irony and God," for instance, Carson
recreates Socrates, Artaud, Sappho and the Trojan hero Hector as television
personalities; in "Plainwater," Carson's nameless narrator conflates
classical Chinese wisdom and the lyrics of Ray Charles to muse upon the
differences between men and women while enduring a cross-country camping
trip with a boyfriend.

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However they may ricochet off the corners of her imagination, Carson seems
always to swing back to two concerns -- "how people get power over one
another/this mystery" and "that custom, the human custom/of wrong love."
Her first novel, "The Autobiography of Red," picks up those themes while
illuminating in verse the life story of Geryon, the red, winged monster who
was killed and robbed of a herd of magic cattle by Herakles (Hercules to
the Latin-speaking, Disney-watching set) during his 10th labor.

Up until now, about Geryon or his feelings history has been concerned
little, but Carson presents Geryon as a thoughtful little boy fascinated by
his glamorous mother, who smokes and irons tea towels and, after neatening
his little wings, shooes him gently out the screen door to kindergarten.
As a teenager, Geryon's passions expand, first to photography and Emily
Dickinson, then to Herakles -- the strongest man on earth and a demigod in
other references, but here godlike only because he is the object of
Geryon's first (and casually disregarded) love.

While thumbing through Fodor's Guide to South America and stumbling into
slick-floored Argentine tango palaces during his requisite
post-collegiate trip, Geryon unexpectedly meets up with Herakles again. And
here, where -- already knowing the end of the story: the arrow through the
monster's skull, the magical cattle stolen -- we could expect Carson to
pull us inexorably to an expected mythic closure, she surprises us yet
again.

Though Carson's ability to carry us willingly forward in a story we already
thought we knew too well is impressive, and her exploding of that story
into a narrative utterly unlike what anyone else could have imagined is
even more so, it is her gift for blueprinting -- in a line, or a single
image -- the ineffable details of emotional life and decoding the
experience of the everyday that makes her such a delicious writer.

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As the 14-year-old Geryon and his mother regard each other at his bedroom
door, Carson captures the inescapable trajectory of adolescence and its
attendant nostalgia for the child one once was: "Stale peace of old
bedtimes/filled the room." Later, tormented by rejection and its
relentlessly long dark nights of the soul, Geryon stares at the sweeping
second hand of the electric clock by his bed: "its little dry hum/ran over
his nerves like a comb."
In one wincingly vivid sequence, "monstrous rectangles flare up the walls"
and "enormous pools of moment" keep opening around his hands as poor Geryon
finds himself profoundly stoned and just plain profound (or so he imagines)
in a group that unluckily includes Herakles and Herakles' new love.

This is a strange and strangely absorbing story, one in which leaps through
time and across continents, metaphoric flights over volcanoes and boring
jobs shelving government documents somehow emulsify into a masterful and
touching observation of what it means to find that you're finally the
subject, not just the object, of your own myth.


Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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