Friday, February 10, 2023

Microreview[Novella]: Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth

 An attempt to take the story of Antigone and reinvent it in a dystopian future that fails to understand the core appeal of the original story.

Arch-Conspirator tells the story of Antigone, a play written in the 5th century BCE by Sophocles, an Athenian tragedian, as the third of his Theban plays. It follows on from Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus, in the latter of which Oedipus has died and his daughters are returning to their home in Thebes, only after reassurance from Theseus that their father has received the appropriate burial rites. Which leads us into the key drama of Antigone - her brothers are dead, and she wishes to ensure that Polynices receives a respectable burial, just as Eteocles already has, and against the wishes of the men in power. It is a play about how some duties, some actions, weigh more heavily than simple laws, and the lengths to which we should go, in the face of overwhelming opposition, to do right. But it is also about how two people can have entirely different senses of justice, and for a large portion in the early part of the play, Kreon, Antigone's antagonist, has just as much reason to believe he has right on his side as she does. It is only once a revelation is provided that the gods concur with Antigone that he strays from righteous action (however lacking in mercy or compassion) into tyranny, and everything falls apart. Part of its enduring popularity - it is constantly restaged to this day - is that the themes are ones which really transcend the setting and can be endlessly reapplied to different contexts without losing their impact or emotional resonance.

And so, enter Veronica Roth, who has taken this play, and turned it into a novella set in a dystopian future. It's a world that has been wracked by unspecified horrors that have left much of it an irradiated wasteland. In this world, birth rates are waning, and so women are valued, protected and stifled because of their precious ability to bear children - they are reduced to walking wombs. It is also a harsh autocracy, with Kreon at the top controlling the city, and one in which, at death, everyone's gametes are gathered by a weird gizmo to be stored in an enduring catalogue of genes for... reasons. It's something that happens to all of the dead, regardless of their actions in life, and is a fundamental of their society.

As I imagine you can already see, we have the key ingredients here for a pretty faithful reimagining of the Greek setting - you have a single, oppressed, female figure standing alone in support of a core tenet of their society in the face of a tyrannical leader. Easy peasy, right?

And yet, Roth manages to get it so, so wrong.

Somehow, this manages to be both an incredibly beat for beat retelling of Antigone's story - to the extent that it will bore people who like their myths more... reimagined - and also full of weird little changes that will annoy anyone who just wants this story told as is. But more than that, it gives us nearly all of the plot beats of the original, but without any of the necessary connective tissue to hold it together and to really sell the emotion that is so fundamental to this story.

Some of this is because it is, quite simply, too short. I rarely think books ought to be in a different format than they are, but this absolutely needed to be a novel, not a novella. It feels rushed at every point, and especially at the end, and what has most been gutted out of it is the work that might have gone into developing the characters. Which is sorely needed.

As it stands, the characters have no chemistry, and barely any personality. They are reduced to their simplest iterations, with none of the nuance that could make them so fascinating to watch. Kreon, for example, is simply a man with too much power, using it wrongly. And while this is certainly part of his personality in the original text, it's not nearly all of it. His core problem is that he starts off with a... if not reasonable, then understandable point of view. He's punishing a traitor, in the hope of dissuading future dissent and finally getting some damn peace in his city. His abiding sin is that he cannot turn from his path, even when he is reliably informed that the gods are very much not on his side - he, and by extension, his city and those around him, suffer because of his hubris. I mean, it's a Greek tragedy, after all. But Roth's Kreon has none of this - he is simply a bad man who has power over a lot of people, using it badly. Frankly, you struggle to see how he got into this position at all. The man has no sense, no reason, and a total black hole where charisma might be, especially after his perspective chapter which has some of the dullest prose you may ever see.

Other characters are similarly poor - you get almost nothing of Ismene, except when needed for the plot to counter Antigone, and because she's had none of the buildup, her filling that role makes almost no sense. Likewise, Haemon, Kreon's son and Antigone's betrothed, barely turns up until suddenly, he's incredibly import, and everything just escalates wildly.

Which is another issue with the story - the pacing is all over the place. There never seems to be any buildup to what happens, the story just throws events up here and there, sometimes to the point where I found myself flipping back a few pages to figure out - did that really just happen? Where did that come from? Roth somehow manages to neither show, nor tell, only vaguely reference after the fact.

And so, when you get to some of the critical moments, they lack the emotional weight they ought to bear because we're just not ready for them. Antigone, in her original play, gets an absolutely glorious speech before Kreon and the people of the city, and absolute crowd-pleaser and a joy to listen to... and while she does get a speech in the novella it's somewhat stilted, abbreviated and above all, just not very good. You don't come out of it believing that anyone will have been made to think by it, and it's over before it can really sink its teeth into anything significant. It just feels there because, to be an Antigone retelling, she needs a speech and well, here you go. Tick that off the list.

But that trial is played to be a major pivot point in the plot - as it is in the play - and so you find yourself at odds with the story's own perception of itself as you read it, especially if you're familiar with the plot its harking back to.

And this is possibly the core of my problem with this story. Myth retellings, or reimaginings, necessarily exist in conversation with their original. They have to choose how they present that conversation to the reader - is it a reliable narration or not, is it a distant reimagining, told and retold and changed in the telling? But there's always that kernel of the original at the core, and for me, good retellings preserve a strand of the spirit of the original, or a reflection on what that original could have been or meant, even as they change potentially an enormous amount around it. But Roth... isn't in conversation with Antigone. Or if she is, she's not doing much talking. Instead, we get... essentially the SparkNotes of the story with a bit of SF flavour around the edges.

And maybe that would be fine, or good enough, if the SF flavour had been well-developed or interesting or novel, but it's not. Like much about this story, it could have very much done with some extra fleshing out, not so much in the facts and details, but in the emotionality of it, the context, the grounding of what's going on. We know the facts - we know about gendered oppression and the hardship of the world, the riots and the radiation - but we don't know how this is part of the texture of that world. Everything exists to serve its purpose to the strict centre of the story, and anything that might be flavour or atmosphere or simply there to bed us into things has been stripped out. So, again, it felt far, far too short. It's a rare book that could stand a few more heavy-handed paragraphs of exposition by a side character, but this is perhaps one of them. When this is your core - and nearly your only - point of difference with the myth you're retelling, surely then you need to make this the star of the show? Yes, it's exactly the Antigone you know, but hey, it's in a dystopian wasteland, so let's see how that affects things! And it's not. 

I say "nearly" only - there are a few deviations from the original plot, but they are few, mostly at the end, and seem not to serve anything but muddling any themes the story felt like it had. The tragedic elements are undermined, the pathos cut short, some of the characters robbed of their potential emotive force, and you're left wondering - what did I get out of this?

Or indeed, why was this written at all?

Which is always the problem with retellings - what does this bring to the story that we can't get from the original? Maybe the answer is "it's now a really compelling novel instead of a really compelling play". Maybe the answer is "putting it in space changes EVERYTHING" or "it's being used as a way of highlighting some very modern problems" or "finding a resonance with something that you might not have considered". There are lots of ways retellings can be done that say something fun or interesting or meaningful. At the moment, the one being chosen is mostly "but make it feminist" which is, y'know, fine. But when you take a play like Antigone, which I would argue is about as feminist as many of the modern ones, whose idea of feminism seems to be "give it a female protagonist", already... you need something better than that. It needs to be good, or interesting, or insightful, and Arch-Conspirator is none of those things.

And so it's a disappointment of a book, when it could have been at least moderately interesting. The critical sell of Antigone as a play is that Antigone is a complex figure who gets some absolutely banging speeches and appeals to very fundamental ideas of morality and duty and the debts we owe one another even into death that are more core than law, they're religion and just being human. She may not be likeable, but you have to respect that she is both brave and probably right, as well as being in just a really horrible situation. If you make the fundamental ideas that she's arguing about a bit less graspable, you risk losing the sympathy, and then if you don't develop her personality, you lose the sympathy the audience might give her, and if you then don't give her banging speeches, what even is her point? Roth has made Antigone drab, and denuded it of the meaning it already had, let alone reinvigorate it with any new ones.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 4/10


Penalties: -1 for complete absence of gutpunch speeches

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10

Reference: Veronica Roth, Arch-Conspirator [Titan Books Ltd, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea