In Brodsky's 'The Immortals', Greek Mythology Is a Sculptural Tool (Sponsored Article)

by Imran Khan

3 March 2016

Like the surreal, dreamlike romance of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, the immortals of Brodsky’s world wander throughout cities, caught between their ethereal origins and the gritty realism of their oneiric existence.
cover art

The Immortals

Jordanna Max Brodsky

US: Feb 2016

This article is brought to you in partnership with Orbit Books.

In Jordanna Max Brodsky’s at once familiar and promethean world of The Immortals, everyday life as we know it becomes the revisionist undertaking of a writer using Greek mythology as a sculptural tool. Brodsky’s novel is an urban fantasy, a genre that has developed a large following in the last ten years or so, but it’s also an inverse reading on gender politics—one that often finds cynicism on either end of the feminist literary debate. Brodsky’s primary tool for exploratory human drama is Artemis, embodied by the protagonist Selene DiSilva, who endeavours to protect women in need by means of stealth and aggression.
In many ways, Brodsky reframes her urban world according to the routines and practices of those descendents of Mount Olympus. You can view her landscapes and the inhabitants within them as cities operating within an Orphic structure. Like the surreal, dreamlike romance of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, the immortals of Brodsky’s world wander throughout cities, caught between their ethereal origins and a gritty realism they have come to interpolate into the fabric of their oneiric existence. Like the Orpheus character in Cocteau’s film, Selene must navigate a difficult realm in which her understanding of male and female relationships is determined by the laws of her birth home of Olympus.

You can also view life on the Manhattan streets that Selene walks as a sort of underworld, much like the one of Cocteau’s Orpheus. Like Jean Marais (playing Cocteau’s titular character) who searches the haunts of Death’s cavern for his imprisoned wife Eurydice, Selene endeavors to rescue battered women from the clutches of their own death—the men that they love. Conflicted by her own ethics of gender relationships and the ways of mortal women, Selene learns rather quickly how love is a business like any other among the city streets.

We then have the flipside of Selene’s objectives in the very women she saves. Ideas of guilt and shame are invested in the actions of the battered women who call upon Selene for help. Warning the women of the dangers of returning to their abusive lovers, Selene obliquely calls to mind the Greek myth of Antigone, both the daughter and sister of Oedipus (by way of his incestuous marriage to his mother). Themes of blame and guilt regarding the myth of Antigone are expressly defined in Greek filmmaker Stathis Athanasiou’s Alpha, his modern adaptation of the Antigone myth.

In Alpha, the title character is banished to a barren wasteland as a result of her refusal to help out her brother when he comes to her in desperate need (a sort of reverse of the original Greek myth, which has Antigone nobly striving to secure a resting place for her dead brother). Athanasiou restructures much of the mythic origins of Antigone’s story in his stark retelling, but leaves the essence of the tale in place, expanding upon its concept of women who are defined through their guilt with members of the opposite sex. In The Immortals, this guilt is but one conflict that Selene must endure in both her struggles with her otherworldly origins and her life in human form. Not entirely understanding or sympathetic toward the need of battered women to maintain their patriarchal relationships, Selene must learn to reframe her purposes once a murder of a fellow Olympian is introduced into the story.

It cannot be overlooked that since The Immortals is also a murder-mystery of female-centric designs—particularly one of Greek myth extraction—Selene can be considered as perhaps an ironic derivation of her Roman equivalent, Diana. Best known in popular culture as the alter-ego of the feminist superhero incarnation Wonder Woman, Diana is reduced to a shadow base within Selene (who embodies Artemis) as a point of reference for the detective heroine. If Princess Diana (from both the popular television series and comics for Wonder Woman) is the hyperbolic of heroic feminism, Brodsky opts for a sobering pragmatism in Selene, one that envisions her protagonist as an everyday woman facing a host of life-threatening compromises; Selene could just as easily be a policewoman or a counselor at a rape crisis centre or even a lone, streetwise woman riding the subway home at night. For all her fabled, Olympian powers, Selene is every woman on the street, on the bus and in the apartment complex, watching, waiting and living… Brodsky’s at once humorous and satiric reworking of the aggrandizing Artemis myth in Wonder Woman relieves us of the very human myth of strong women being beyond ordinary, despite Selene’s very own Olympian heritage.

On other levels, Brodsky’s novel explores the bonds between women, pointedly expressed through Selene’s life mission of defending the gender boundaries of which her antagonists threaten. The women of Greek myth have, indeed, often been the focus of many a tale. One writer of particular persuasion in the art of exploring female sexual practices is Erica Jong, who has often found inspiration in some of the most influential figures of Greek mythology. Her novel, Sappho’s Leap, explores the heights of the author’s fascination of the woman as a muse. While Sappho herself is not a figure of Greek mythology directly (being that she was a living poet during the 6th century BC), her ties to Greek myth run deep. Sappho’s retellings of the Homer epics redirects the masculine heroism of the original Greek myth into something discernibly (though somewhat intangibly) feminine.

Jong’s Sappho’s Leap tells the story of Sappho’s resistance and strife within the collectively male-dominated sphere of the artistic world she inhabits. Her passion and desire become the very weapons with which she will reinterpret and ultimately transform a patriarchal dominion. In this way, Jong implicitly comments on Sappho’s own reconstruction of stories that are defined by the male perspective.

Brodsky attempts this very same task in The Immortals with Selene, who covertly usurps the male-dominance of vigilante fiction. Brodsky’s character is a re-examination of everything that most Hollywood films and popular fiction has identified as resolutely male. She revises such stereotypes with the deft hand of a writer adding yet another affecting voice to a form of fiction that has often struggled with its depiction of women.

Manhattan, itself a character in Brodsky’s novel, reveals its true labyrinthine nature. Like the maze of Daedalus, Manhattan’s unpredictable turns of mayhem, murder and romance, conspicuous and secreted, provide Selene an environment in which Brodsky can situate her Greek tragedy. It is in this respect that the author encompasses the elements of the horror genre in order to evoke the thick atmosphere of tension highly prevalent in her story.

While both men and women populate Brodsky’s story, the narrative is clearly focalized through a predominantly female perspective, even when the narrative voice shifts to a male character. Brodsky’s Manhattan, charged with an expressively female energy, mirrors the dangers and turmoil to be found within the byzantine passageways of Daedalus’ maze. In many ways, there is some semblance of this disorienting exploration of Manhattan to filmmaker Dario Argento’s gothic dance academy in his film Suspiria. Suspiria has its roots in the tales of Brothers Grimm, the academy being located within Europe’s Black Forest, but it also borrows generously from Greek myth. Much like Brodsky’s Manhattan, Argento’s dance academy is its own horrific labyrinth of which unsuspecting dwellers are imprisoned, with monstrous spirits in human facades lurking about.

Both protagonists, The Immortals’ Selene and Suspiria’s Suzy, function as a kind of intrepid Icarus, personified as a female detective of sorts. Both women, referring to the common Greek myth trope of challenging fate and the gods, take their chances by scaling the heights of danger in order to discover the truth. For Suzy, this secreted truth is her dance academy’s clandestine coven of satanic witches. For Selene, it’s the murderer responsible for the death of her ancestral kin. The women in either of these stories journey the winding and complex paths of their labyrinths that are at once their reluctant homesteads and the mirror reflection of their emotional expeditions.

In any case, Brodsky’s world of The Immortals opens the door to ancient myth and invites an unexpected and crashing reality… 

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