Every story has a back story. And Canadian author Annabel Lyon has gone a long way back to find her story in The Golden Mean — an aging Aristotle is recruited by Philip of Macedon to tutor his young son, Alexander (not yet the Great, but he will be) and introduce some thoughtful moderation into a royal life that is, and will always be, based on action. As much as he would like to devote his attention to something else (a treatise on theatre, actually), Aristotle is up to the challenge. In fact, he is equally entranced by the prospect of tutoring Alexander’s older — and disadvantaged — brother, Arrhidaeus, who has been coolly rejected by all his family because of his disability.
The golden mean of the title in this Giller Prize short-listed novel is the conflict between contemplation (as represented by Aristotle) and action (Alexander). As Aristotle complains to Alexander, late in the book:
“Your father suffers from what in an ordinary man we would call an excess of the virtue of pride. I’m not sure if such a thing is possible in a king. We are wasting time.” I’m angry suddenly and don’t care if he knows. I’m Macedonian to the Athenians and Athenian to the Macedonians. Maedi was a triumph; the Academy is not a pressing issue. “We are wasting each other’s time. You would like to be with the army and I would like to be in Athens writing books. Alas, we are left to each other’s company. Shall we make the best of an unpleasant situation and get this lesson over with as quickly as possible so we can each return to our own solitary pursuits? Show me your notes from last time.”
Lyon avoids the temptation to follow Philip — and eventually Alexander — through their various wars and conflicts. She does pay attention to various diplomatic and courtly intrigues, but her focus is always on Aristotle’s pursuit of the mean:
“My few meagre tools with which I try to order the universe. You must look for the mean between the extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time. You must–”
Alexander interrupts. There is a limit to his willingness to contemplate.
While the author remains true to keeping that central theme in focus, she also remains true to history. Despite the forthright focus of the novel, an introductory cast of characters, in order of appearance, has 43 names and all of them come into play. Aristotle’s pursuit of the golden mean is not limited to Alexander, it extends to everyone with whom he has contact from the king to the lowliest slave.
All of this makes for a somewhat frustrating book. While there is a lot of action around it, there is not much action in it — rather it is a study of the complex web of relationships that an outcast (as noted in the quote above, Aristotle is not at home anywhere) must maintain if he is to survive in the upper echelons of a warring world. For the reader, that plays out as moving from sideline to sideline, always aware of the real game that is being played but never being taken to the centre of it. Aristotle remains appropriately philosophical and curious throughout; while Alexander matures as the novel progresses, he never actually acquires the depth of character that this reader would have liked.
One side effect of that is that Aristotle’s wife, Pythias, (awarded to him by another king in gratitude) becomes a much more interesting character than he who will become the Great. Devoted to her husband, and much more aware of the aspects of real politic, Pythias’ dinners and positioning become every bit as important to Aristotle’s success as his tutoring and philosophy. And there are some very nice set pieces when the philosopher buys his wife a new slave, who happens to be a witch and limits most of her conversation with the male master to “fuck off”.
Alas, for this reader, that was not enough to save the novel. It is a straightforward, decently written book but in the final analysis the back story is simply not enough to carry the book. As the end approaches and Alexander ventures forth into the real world of conquest, while Aristotle stays behind, there is a distinct feeling that we have seen only part of the story — and perhaps not the most interesting part. Despite the lengthy list of characters, the reader has been exposed only to sub-plots. The book that Aristotle wanted to write about Greek theatre might have been more interesting after all.
(EDIT, Oct. 14 — The Golden Mean was named today to the Governor-General’s award fiction shortlist along with Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness and Michael Crummey’s Galore (reviewed by Shadow Giller juror Trevor on his blog here). Other finalists are Kate Pullinger for The Mistress of Nothing (which I promise to get to soon) and Deborah Willis for her short story collection, Vanishing and Other Stories. My initial guess (and this will be the KfC kiss of death) is that Munro wins the G-G award in a walk. The absence of Atwood is yet another indication of how bad her book is.)