Booze, Sun, Sex and Mythology

Ariadne’s Dream

By Joel Yanofsky

Published on October 1, 2001

Ariadne’s Dream
Tess Fragoulis

Thistledown Press
$21.95
paper
366pp
1-894345-30-4

Tess Fragoulis, whose new novel Ariadne’s Dream is set in modern day Greece but includes the occasional cameo appearance by the occasional mythical figure, received her first book of Greek mythology when she was six. Her father gave it to her and she remembers him making it clear to her that the stories in the book weren’t just any old – emphasis on the old – stories.

“He told me they belonged to me,” Fragoulis says during an interview at a St. Denis café. “I loved those stories from that point on. I’ve always felt I owned them. I’ve had people of non-Greek origin tell me that when I speak of Greek mythology and I speak of gods, I speak of them as though they are my relatives, as if I know them. And I do. I’ve always felt that.”

At the same time, Fragoulis, who was born in Crete but came to Montreal with her family when she was a baby, also did what most children of immigrants do: she took her heritage for granted. “It’s part of that immigrant mentality – that you need to throw away, leave behind whatever your roots are and just be part of the society you are living in. You grow up not wanting to be Greek, not wanting to be part of those stories,” she explains.

Even when she started thinking about becoming a writer in the mid-1980’s – she attended Concordia’s Creative Writing Department where she now teaches – she remained reluctant to explore the material that was most obviously and intimately hers. That material was also conspicuously absent from her first book of short fiction, Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1997).

“For a long time, I never wrote anything that was set in a specific place,” Fragoulis adds. “It was always some vague urban North American centre. I had a lot of experience, a lot of details, a lot of language, even, in my head that I wasn’t taking advantage of in any way.”

But all that’s changed with Ariadne’s Dream. Fragoulis’s story of sex, drugs, obsessive love, and unkind fate is played out against a backdrop of ancient history. Even the title character’s first kiss in a noisy bar with a man fated to cause her nothing but grief is described in mythical terms:

“Persephone was being lured by Hades, the earth was trembling (or was it just the vibration of the sound system) and was about to crack open to swallow the two lovers. Though this Persephone…went willingly, lifted her skirts and daintily stepped into the ground, holding lovingly onto her abductor’s hand.”

Ariadne’s Dream is also set in very specific places. One is Athens, where Ariadne, a 20-year-old Montrealer of Greek descent, first meets Yannis, a fallen rock star, heroin junkie, and the object of her addictive, self-destructive love. The city is described in telling detail. Its ruins and charms are interchangeable, sometimes perilously indistinguishable.

Things are less ambiguous on the island of Nysas, where most of the novel is set and where Ariadne ends up in her effort to forget her unhappy love affair with Yannis. There are only three reasons anyone comes to Nysas – booze, sun, and sex. Ariadne, unfortunately, also has to work at a jazz bar called The Scat Club where her duties include serving a drink called the Orgasm to inebriated, grabby tourists and, due to a shortage of water on the island, painting the floor of the bar white each night at closing time.

While Fragoulis’s novel is short on action – it’s a long book and it takes a long time for anything significant to happen – it compensates with atmosphere. Likewise, while Fragoulis’s cast of characters could probably bear to be more sympathetic and less self-indulgent, they are offbeat enough to pique a reader’s curiosity and they are more than messed up enough to inspire concern. They also tend to compound their own problems, which makes them the perfect subjects for the author’s mischievous, chatty, and omniscient (godlike?) narration.

“What makes a young woman fall in love instantly with someone she hardly knows? Someone’s she had ample warning about from both the world of dreams and from her cohorts in the clubs and cafes of Athens?…Ariadne and Yannis ultimately had the same disease, the same illusion. For him she was willing to give up everything, to die, and that is exactly what he required of her.”

When she’s describing Ariadne’s Dream, Fragoulis uses the word ‘intense’ often enough to apologize. The fact is she didn’t expect the novel to be as intense an experience as it turned out to be. Her plan was to link together some amusing stories – she didn’t even expect the book to be a novel – about a crazy Dionysian island and the case of colourful, bizarre characters who inhabit it. Then Ariadne’s obsession with Yannis (not to mention all the other characters and their obsessions) took over. “The darker parts that are now in the novel were a surprise to me because I didn’t want that,” Fragoulis says. In other ways, too, she got more than she bargained for. Although she had the idea for Ariadne’s Dream for more than a decade, Fragoulis started writing it in 1995 and finished her first draft during a two-month stay at a writer’s colony in New Mexico. It’s there she lost control of her story, happily as it turned out. She handwrote 400 pages in two months. She compares the experience to catching a wave.

“I am a junkie to the wave,” she says, “I love it. Nothing is more wonderful than a beautiful first draft.”

And while Fragoulis is cheeky enough – a particularly Greek character trait, she says – to acknowledge that this book has, indeed, been a kind of gift from the gods, even she can’t help but be a little sheepish when she talks about how much of Ariadne’s Dream just flowed out of her. Remember, she knows her ancient mythology well, well enough to have a healthy respect for the dangers of hubris.

These days she hopes she’s happy to teach her creative writing students one important lesson – that writing is hard work. She is also reluctant to talk about what she’s doing next, except to say: “Now that I’ve finished a novel I know that we should all fear the novel. They are very difficult things. I’m working on a novel – presumably, but I won’t be tied down to that.” mRb

Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.

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