The bloody standoff between Hector and Achilles, in Book 22 of The Iliad, is very likely the most epic episode in the entire epic history of epicness—600 lines of pure high-grade ancient suspense tricked out with a deluxe package of big-budget Homeric special effects: doomy speeches, hair-tearing bystanders, tense digressions, cranky squabbling gods, and more similes than the lightning elimination round of a poetry slam. Hector waits like “a snake in the hills, guarding his hole … bloated with poison” until Achilles swoops like a “wild mountain hawk” and chases him three times around the circumference of Troy. (They run like “powerful stallions.”) After pausing to speechify and throw spears, Hector (sticking with the raptor theme) swoops at Achilles like “a soaring eagle”—whereupon Achilles stabs him in the neck, gloats over his dying body, and threatens to eat him raw, and the rest of the Greek army gathers around to playfully stab at his naked corpse, and Achilles finally drags the body off with his chariot, prompting Hector’s mom to scream, his dad to groan and rave, and his wife to lament the miserable life of her suddenly fatherless young son. The scene is, in other words, a pretty major production—as brutal and disturbing and deadly a climax as you’re likely to see until the actual Armageddon.
Since it was first scratched onto a scroll more than 2,500 years ago, Hector versus Achilles has, of course, undergone infinite translations, from Alexander Pope’s heroic couplets to the faux-British bluster of the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy to (construed more loosely) the ending of every single Chuck Norris movie ever made. But surely one of the most surprising translations, and now officially one of my favorites, is Under Odysseus, a blog that retells the epic story from the limited, skeptical, gossipy perspective of Eurylochus, one of Odysseus’s soldiers. While most translations of Homer aspire toward the classic virtues of beauty, nobility, and fidelity, this version seems happy with plain old digital-era immediacy: It is colloquial, profane, funny, and sublimely inarticulate. (And, in one of the best author bios ever, it’s apparently written by a 32-year-old neuroscientist during his lunch breaks.) Stripped of its Homeric grandeur, the episode becomes absurd, tragicomic, and yet still oddly real. “I couldn’t do it justice to describe the battle in full,” Eurylochus writes. “However, Hector and Achilles slashed, jumped, rolled and punched like they were having some kind of physical debate.” When Hector dies, Achilles’ legendary hubris manifests itself in the petty theatrics of a professional athlete: “At first there was total silence. / Achilles then yelled: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and / Pumped his fist into the air.” As he drags off Hector’s corpse, still within hearing range of the grieving Trojans, he keeps shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” “This,” Eurylochus writes with priceless understatement, “made things very uncomfortable.”
Purists and cranks might dismiss such casual canon-tampering as pointless desecration, the MySpace-ification of our precious ancient cultural heritage. But it strikes me as inspired and useful in a way that epitomizes, very precisely, the fundamental power of blogs. Everyone from schoolchildren to shuffleboard champions recognizes the institutional force of The Iliad, and bows to Homer as the supreme godhead of CliffsNotes and pop quizzes and five-page papers—but few modern readers feel the actual gut-level power of its story. Through the amateur, grassroots magic of blogginess, Under Odysseus manages to rehumanize the legend: Odysseus is constantly distracted by, and hypersensitive about, his crazy horse scheme (“Among other things, Odysseus asked me if / I thought the Horse was too tall, whether / I thought it looked too much like a Horse”), and the Trojans express their grief not through elaborate formal speeches but in the language of outraged frat boys: “It was Glaukos who spoke first: ‘You sick fuckers! How could you fuckers be so sick!? You put Hector on a fucking pole? What is this shit?!’ ” Like all good blogs, the site is clearly driven by love—an unofficial, subjective, relentless passion for the subject—and it spreads that love to a new audience through a kind of guerrilla criticism. It sent me back to reading The Iliad for the first time in years. This is the consistent lesson of Sarah Boxer’s rewarding new collection, Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web, which includes Under Odysseus: The best blogs set fire to the dry abstractions of official culture—Greek myth, affirmative action, cosmology, presidential politics—with the spark of immediate, personal enthusiasm.
From roughly 80 million sites, Boxer has picked 27 that strike her as “funnier, more ambitious, better written, smarter, and (I think) more universally appealing”; anyone who thinks of blogs as wastelands of navel-gazing (Thurs, Feb 21: “My butt hurts”) is bound to be pleasantly surprised. (Boxer admits, in the introduction, that her choices are unrepresentative of the larger blogosphere, since so many blogs from the most popular species—politics, sports, gadgets—were too link-heavy and topical for a book.) A handful of these are already very popular: Matthew Yglesias’s political site, tied to The Atlantic; the Rest Is Noise, run by The New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross; and the Smoking Gun, the document-exposing Website famous for outing James Frey as a fictioneer. The best selections, however, are the surprises. AngryBlackBitch (“Practicing the Fine Art of Bitchitude”) riffs on the racist implications of King Kong and the opponents of affirmative action: “College ain’t a meritocracy, but that fact is better explored through a conversation with the heir to your right and not the black chick to your left.” I Blame the Patriarchy, written from the point of view of a “queer pro-choice atheist and aesthete,” smartly interrogates Abu Ghraib and “the humiliative superpowers of women’s panties.” A blogger called El Guapo in D.C. writes whimsical paeans to his mustache (“Touching it is the equivalent of dipping your fingers in holy water”) and the power of the Guatemalan libido: “If you go around giving the Viagra pill to Guatemalans I’m afraid that the entire female population in the United States would be overworked by our love making.” A physicist gives a refreshingly clear overview of the controversy over Pluto’s planetary status: “It’s really hard to come up with some objective criteria of planet-ness that would include the canonical nine but not open the doors to all sorts of unwanted interlopers.” An American Marine describes the inside of a typical Iraqi house (no beds). A poet writes “A Villanelle Composed Upon Jennifer Aniston’s Answers to Her May 2001 Vanity Fair Interview, With Catalina Island ‘Glimmering in the Distance.’ ”
A print anthology of blog writing seems, at first, to be a deeply paradoxical genre—roughly the equivalent of a cave painting about digital photography, an eight-track guide to ripping MP3s, or a Claymation documentary about the high-tech magic of CGI. In a book, hyperlinks are dead on arrival, animation is frozen into grainy stills, emoticons are ruthlessly suppressed, comments are disabled, and updates take years instead of minutes. And yet, for some of us, the combination makes a certain intuitive sense. Although I fully recognize the power of blogs, I’m still internally calibrated to the steadiness of books. My typical blog experience involves bursts of distracted and anxious skimming, during which I worry that I’m reading the wrong sites, and that the real pith and energy of the Web is happening a few clicks away; at the end of each day a line of grimly unread tabs stretches across my screen like a prison lineup, sad proof that the great rushing stream of life has, once again, passed me by. So it’s nice to have the experience curated—to have this virtual Proteus (to put it in Homeric terms) wrestled down for textual inspection.
Most of Boxer’s selections don’t read like a new species of writing, but like very close cousins of once-venerable print genres that have been forced out of public discourse by the shrinkage of major American media: passionate arts criticism, critical theory, colorful polemics, and, above all, the personal essay. Sometimes it seems like blogging is just the apotheosis of the personal essay, the logical heir to 500 years of work by proto-bloggers such as Montaigne, Charles Lamb, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Parker, and E. B. White. I see no reason for drawing an artificial line between screen and print. According to the contributor’s note for Under Odysseus, once the blogger has had enough lunch breaks to revise the entirety of Homer’s epics, he plans to publish them as a book. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web
Edited by Sarah Boxer.
Vintage. 368 pages. $14.95.