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Picks and Pans Review: The Medusa Frequency

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by Russell Hoban

The author of such varied novels as Riddley Walker and Turtle Diary treads an infinitesimally thin line between playful inspiration and precious foolishness with this tale. The occasional toe dips onto the foolishness side, but he generally succeeds in balancing his comic rhythms and obliquely scathing tone as he writes about a man obsessed with the Greek myth of Orpheus. Orpheus was a musician of supernatural talent whose wife, Eurydice, died. Orpheus followed her into Hades and had a chance to retrieve her from death but violated a rule of his guest and lost her forever. In one version of the tale, he later angered the god Dionysus so much that Dionysus arranged for his head to be torn off and thrown into the sea. Hoban’s semi-hero, Herman Orff, is a blocked English author who is bemoaning the fact that there is no computer software titled Third Novel. He is also bemoaning the loss of a girlfriend who left him a note that said, “I trusted you with the idea of me and you lost it.” Having left his job at the ad agency of Slithe & Tovey (the Alice allusion is one of the too-cute moments), Orff is writing for comic books when he encounters Orpheus’ head floating in the Thames—and in a chatty mood at that. When Orff later encounters Orpheus in the guise of a soccer ball, a cabbage and half a grapefruit, they realize they have something in common: They’re both trying to resolve the stories of their lives. Orff is not a happy man: “In the morning, I came awake as I always do, like a man trapped in a car going over a cliff.” In its darker passages, in fact, the novel seems to imply that all quests are ultimately futile-even when Orff finds his old lover, he wishes he hadn’t—but there is also a relieving note of flippancy. Hoban gets in swipes at such cultural phenomena as Hemingway and obscurantist filmmakers, the latter via a fictional director, Gösta Kraken, whose masterpieces include Bogs and Quicksand (a kraken is also a sea monster in a Scandinavian myth that provides Orff with a perpetual nightmare). As Orff notes, “Art is a tough business,” but it doesn’t do to take any of it too seriously. (Atlantic, $16.95)