Despite so much of the novel being plot-driven, The Whispering Muse defies easy summary. Instead, it is one of those immersive, experiential works of art: exhilarating, then bewildering when one looks up from the page and tries to refocus on “so-called real life.” Through Sjón’s skewed lens, our world appears equally strange as one in which gods transform girls into boys, heroines grow wings and ancient warriors turn up on merchant ships to entertain their fellow seamen.
The bedrock mythologies of almost every culture, which integrated the marvellous with the everyday, were stories of and from and about the people, collectively. These have been largely replaced by the self-help solipsism common to modern fiction, which invariably requires some lone character to emerge epiphanic and changed. Sjón has spoken about how myth “puts [us] down to size.” Perhaps, in today’s climate of individualism, grand stories create discomfort in a culture so focused on self-actualization and personal fulfilment.
Almost by default, the epic has become a literature of dissent. Narratives that access realms beyond human comprehension and experience suggest that, as Sjón puts it, “man … is just this tiny figure moving from one meal to another on his way to the grave.” Yet these seem exactly the sorts of stories we need, as they not only force us outside our own narcissism, but also address the hybridity of modern lives half-spent in virtual realms: part real, part imagined.
These are not new ideas; in the mid-20th century a number of authors grew discontented with realism, a condition articulated by the critic Jerome Klinkowitz: “If the world is absurd, if what passes for reality is distressingly unreal, why spend time representing it?” Yet the novel’s tendency away from the epic also seems symptomatic of how out of touch we’ve become with this continent’s original stories.
Compared with Iceland, Canada’s literary traditions seem almost synchronized with their own present; were one to ask most Canadian writers about their influences, very few (short of Thomas King, Lee Maracle and a handful of like-minded aboriginal authors) would cite the aboriginal legends even more ancient than the great Norse sagas.
How inspiring, then, to discover a contemporary writer like Sjón, who is willing to harken back to ancient traditions, to acknowledge that life remains strange and mysterious, to honour the gold of the “mouth-tale” and to write novels that capture the duality of existence arguably more prevalent now than ever before. “I am a great believer,” he has said, “in the idea that the myths and the gods never left.”
Pasha Malla is the author People Park and The Withdrawal Method.