fter “Brooklyn” and “The Master,” Colm Toìbìn’s “House of Names” once again showcases the author’s hypnotic ability to weave direct speech and “spoken” thought. In “Names,” Irishman Tóibín takes Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the “Oresteia,” and adapts it to suit modern narrative, reviving Agamemnon’s royal house while examining the viewpoints and motivations of the trilogy’s key figures, Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes.
It opens with Clytemnestra’s haunting and haunted voice, for she is prime mover behind the story’s action and conflict. Her introductory soliloquy voids the ancient Greek premise that capricious gods meddle in the affairs of mortals. Humans are on their own now, she announces, her voice wavering between arrogance and terror. Her family cast has entered a new era, one in which mortals will lack authoritative guidance and justifications from on high. “I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed,” she says, swiftly evoking a 21st-century moral reference point.
Accelerating this transit from Greek tragedy to psychological novel, Toìbìn deftly clips antiquity’s standard draping. Calendar time collapses. Internal tensions deepen. Fear of roaming rebel troops and “enemies” keep the actors entrapped in a bleak stone citadel filled with long, dark winding corridors and doors. The gods are gone; Agamemnon’s famously decorated Mycenaean Palace with them. What remains is its own kind of prison in which characters jostle for power, and safety.
Clytemnestra, in medias res, opens the novel center stage, bitterly ruing husband Agamemnon’s long-ago sacrificial slaughter of daughter Iphigenia, and her own revenge, a quick slicing of the king’s throat as soon as he returned from his Trojan War odyssey. No gods advised her actions. Godly advice is scarce. The retaliatory murder opens the door to years of war and mass slaughters between rebelling family houses. Death ruthlessly and constantly punctuates this story. Power is the name of the game and it spirals constantly out of control.
Daughter Electra follows Clytemnestra’s breathtaking opener. Her quick, sharp first-person sentences are bitter mix of dialogue and soliloquies. Her meditations culminate in a decision to avenge her father’s murder. But Tóibín’s world allows for no morally absolving mandate from the gods. “We live in a strange time,” she moans, “when the gods are fading.”
Her younger brother Orestes has little opinion about the gods, or anything else. In three third-person chapters, he reflects on his life as Agamemnon’s spoiled eight-year-old son and on time spent as one of many kidnapped children (all heirs to family houses and therefore possible future power players). He concludes with his insignificant adult role in a newly formed court. Both as child and adult, Orestes is passive observer, which the slackened prose reflects. Yet his innocent observations fill out an intricate plot skeleton that Electra and Clytemnestra are able to explore only in relation to their obsessive memories.
Orestes is barely half-aware of the dangers in which he is minor actor. Electra easily convinces him to go through with her revenge plot and killing of their mother. In the end, matricidal Orestes is tolerated in court only because he’s the brother-in-law to the newest power player. Roles remain, but their occupants change. Base circumstances can later bring great success, or vice versa.
Tóibín’s magic wand transforms the weight of the Greek original into a modern psychological drama with plenty of parallels to the twists and turns of contemporary life.
As part of his elastic allusion to a more contemporary time, Tóibín eliminates the standard Greek chorus, those reporters of offstage violence. Cutting them out permits a ferociously unsparingly look at the bloodletting crimes that dominated the ancient Greek world, just as urban crime dominates now.
He shrewdly translates Aeschylus’ god-spurred revenge theme something more private, political and vicious, à la “House of Cards.” It is brilliantly accomplished work, with an incomparable sense of character innuendo. “House of Names” is a good bet for year’s best novel.