While Annabel Lyon’s much-acclaimed novel The Golden Mean, has been received well by critics, I’m afraid it fell short for this reader.
The novel deals with Aristotle’s life during his tutelage of Alexander, who would become The Great. Lyon attempts to paint a picture of Aristotle’s own struggle to find balance between depression and joy, passion and reason, and in doing so employs a considerable wealth of research into the historical characters.
However, research into the historical milieu is lacking. In the opening Lyon’s describes:
“I spent yesterday on the carts myself so I could write, though now I ride bareback, in the manner of my countrymen, a ball-busting proposition for someone who’s been sedentary as long as I have.”
Agreed riding bare-back can be a painful experience over the long-term; however, the glaring inconsistency here is the fact Aristotle was writing while riding in a cart. In an era of no suspension, and roughly paved or even dirt roads, the jouncing and ‘ball-busting’ would have had his backside black and blue, and any writing would have been rendered illegible. Further, Lyon fails to illustrate that if paper (papyrus) were used, or more likely parchment or vellum, all would have required sanding and burnishing, tasks not easily accomplished on a bouncing, crashing cart. Moreover, use of any stylus and ink would have been prohibitive. If, however, a wax tablet had been used, which would have been more likely the case, even then any legible cipher would have been an impossibility.
The language of the novel was another point of contention for me. Altogether very modern, even to the use of the modern phrase, whapping each other upside the head, the language of the novel didn’t ring true, and consequently a sense of time period and placement left me feeling disoriented. I wasn’t looking for Shakespearean diction here; far from it. But I was looking for something a little less modern street.
Around the middle of the novel that modern touch became completely arresting when Lyons writes a scene wherein he and his wife watch snow falling, and Aristotle explains to his wife:
“The gods don’t send it,” I say. “It’s part of the machinery of the world. When the air is cold enough, rain turns to snow. It freezes. The water atoms attach to each other and harden.”
Now, while Democritus, one of the ancient Greek philosophers credited with the concept of atomic theory, was a contemporary of Aristotle’s, the statement Lyon’s writes reads just a bit too modern and stretches the boundaries of credibility.
As to the tone of the language, it is altogether very vulgar, which may be an attempt to reflect a male voice. Instead, at least for this reader, that vulgar tone simply rendered the novel somewhat adolescent and reliant on the use of shock factor instead of writing skill.
When analyzing writing skill, there is a profound lack of character development, so that Aristotle himself is merely a talking head, as are most of the enormous cast of characters. There’s nothing there for me to hang on to. And that lack of character development extends to lack of environmental detail, so that what should have been a very alive, vibrant, sensory plunge into ancient Greece and Macedon, instead remain a grey slate waiting for colour. There was no sense of heat or cold, of architecture or furnishing, of environment or countryside. The only explicit detail Lyon ever uses is that of periodic, clinical gore, or base sexuality.
It may be that this sensory deprivation was Lyon’s attempt to reflect the lack of depth and character in her protagonist, Aristotle, but for me it was like reading a green screen, waiting for the magic to appear.
If Lyon’s novel, The Golden Mean, is the standard by which we now measure excellence, then I am outdated, antiquated and obsolete.