One might think that a retelling of the life of a demigod would offer a rich field, particularly if the demigod told the story himself. It was, therefore, with a fair degree of anticipation — and a vivid recollection of the tour-de-force of Star of the Gypsies — that I turned to Robert Silverberg’s latest, The Last Song of Orpheus.
I’m not going to bother to recount the story of Orpheus — or rather, I should say “stories,” for there are many, and Silverberg has knit them together into a seamless tapestry, episodic, to be sure, but held together by the hero himself.
And there’s the rub. Using a first-person narrative gives an author a great opportunity to build a rich, complex personality (and by my favorite methods, implication and reference), particularly when that personality belongs to a character with the mythic depth of Orpheus. Orpheus, sadly, at least in this incarnation, isn’t up to it.
Orpheus’ story is a story of music and poetry, but it’s also a story of death, blood, and madness, and I think Silverberg’s decision to make Orpheus a true son of Apollo — the god of, among other things, reason — left out a large part of what could make Orpheus real to us. He tells us about it, but we don’t feel it — we don’t feel the loss of Eurydice, we don’t feel the strangeness and timelessness of Egypt, nor the glory of Apollo in the flesh nor the barbarism of Medea and her kin. They are simply related, so much dry data.
There’s no rule that says a protagonist has to be the most appealing person you’ve ever run across, but they should be interesting, at least, and Orpheus isn’t. Distanced, dispassionate, almost completely uninflected, he passes everything off to Fate. It’s all inevitable, and there goes all the tension in the story: if it’s going to happen, no matter what, why struggle at all? And if there’s no struggle, there’s no engagement, no sympathy, no empathy, merely the relation of events. It doesn’t help at all that Orpheus comes across as a self-absorbed jerk.
The book’s not a total loss. Silverberg’s prose is supple and seductive enough to keep us reading, at least. And it becomes a little bit of a game, relating the stories as told by Orpheus to one’s own recollection of the Greek myths and legends.
But ultimately, it’s just OK.
(Subterranean Press, 2010)