An Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul (1978)
Review by Joachin Boaz
Barbara Paul’s An Exercise for Madmen, a retelling of Euripides’s ‘The Bacchae’, follows an established narrative pattern: Stranger enters community with dangerous knowledge. Community reacts with suspicion but soon the stranger, despite claims of goodwill, begins to wield greater and greater influence.
In this case, a priapic-Romance cover “ideal” alien man named Zalmox (masculine to women, feminine to men) gets an entire community to have great sex with him and everyone else… And he brings magical alien apples, apples that cure madness…
Location: the Pythia Medical Project, “an isolated place [far from Earth] where research could continue uninterrupted without any immediate danger to human life”. Experiments on humans and animals abound on Pythia.
The cast: Pythian society falls into four main categories: the scientists, the test subjects, the technicians, and the sentient animal helpers (chimps with human hands). And Jennie Giess does not fit. She is an original test subject of Pythia raised away from Earth, her “parents were a sperm-and-ova bank in New York”. Depressed, drifting, prevented from returning to Earth by manipulative scientists, she is the only non-essential personal on the planet. Jennie spends her time writing about Pythia for Earth audiences and teaches the few children who do not show a propensity for science (a future where the liberal arts are no longer taught to all? perhaps that is why they are utterly unable to assess the morality of their often egregious experiments!). Jennie’s boyfriend and various ex-boyfriends add drama. There’s Sam Flaherty and his webbed feet, and Pythia’s leader Thalia, Jacob the intelligent chimp, children with blue and green cancer resistant skin, Dan the cybernetic man who controls the functions of the station…
And then there’s Zalmox, “an agronomist” who travels, with his space apple plants that cure schizophrenia, across the cosmic reaches bringing his endless libido to all. At first he causes a general fog of pleasantness to seep over the stratifications of Pythian society easing relations between groups, the experimental children and normals, etc. But soon a descent into bacchic chaos begins: a cataclysm of threesomes and other pairings with all genders and combinations and ages… The ramifications of this societal transformation are not as innocent (and “liberating?”) as Pythia’s inhabitants seem to think. But the power Zarmox exudes, seduces.
Two central elements prevent An Exercise for Madmen from failing completely. First, the two main women characters buck standard 70s SF trends. Thalia, the leader of the Pythia settlement, must make the hard decisions when the world is crumbling around her irregardless of her own personal safety. Jennie Geiss, depressed, dependent on drugs, aimlessly moving through a sequence of lovers, is not a traditional SF character – and I found the descriptions of her depression honest and affective: “A careless word, an unintentional snub, a short answer, the casual cruelty of other insecure souls in search of ego—boost almost anything was enough to make her withdraw into her herself even more during the day” [p 42].
Second, although the descent into bacchic chaos laboriously dulls the senses – there are only so many scenes of excess, partying to the cosmic beat of the stars stars piped over Pythia’s communication systems, and piles of naked people doing strange things to each other one can tolerate – the aftermath acts as a form of shock treatment. The tone shifts. The trauma sets in. The characters realize their agency and complicity in causing the chaos. The punch aches.
The novel’s final moments are weakened by a case of over-explanation in the form of Jennie Giess’ self-analysis (that doubles as the author’s statement of intention) as she contemplates her fate. A self-analysis that lays out the work’s allusions to and intellectual descent from classical authors should be apparent to a reader with some grounding in the classics and do not need to be spelled out in excruciating detail:
“Oedipus blinding himself in order to see … Gregory Samsa’s parents pretending they have no cockroach son. Different ways of coping with the incompatible. The healthy, unafflicted body has no need to cope: our long his of “coping” is symptomatic of – what? A terminal case of life? Sophocles, Shakespeare, the Pear poet, Swift, Kafka – five brilliant diagnosticians of human malaise. (We also have quacks: John Fletcher, August Stridenberg, Kurt Vonnegut)” [p 165]
I wonder in what category this novel lies.
My biggest frustration concerns the integration of experimental “meta” passages into the narrative. As the novel “rewrites” the play ‘The Bacchae’, Paul tries to put a more modern spin on the original notion of “script” by creating jarring filmic interludes. In Barry N Malzberg’s The Inside Men (1973) the filmic moments serve to show how the character views his own role, the invented movie as propagandistic filter. In Langdon Jones’ short story ‘The Eye of the Lens’ (1968), the camera lens, as a metaphor for God/an all-seeing entity/the sun, “sees” in a Godard-esque exercise that reduces narrative to a highly fragmented and symbolic sequence drenched with religious (and anti-religious) undertones. Paul’s script chapters, detailing the confrontation between Thalia and Zalmox, do not add to the story’s craft or generate a meaning-rich layer of complexity.
A series of surreal scenes and nonsense paragraphs, for example, one that repeats the letter “p” indicate the final descent into chaos: “I perpetuate the pattern. There’s a positive purpose propelling me – pushing, persuading, prolonging my problem” [p 148]. Yes, it’s a pattern!
As these two examples indicate, Paul moves half-heartedly in many different directions. The ideas unfurl in a logical sequence but do not meld together in meaningful or artful ways.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other suspect Ruminations.