Gods Behaving Badly

The opening scene of Marie Phillips’s first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, is as irresistible as the beginning of any fairy tale: “One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.”

When Artemis addresses the tree, the encounter immediately takes a comically absurd turn. ” ‘I’m the goddess of hunting and chastity,’ said Artemis?. Then the tree said, ‘I’m Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs.’ ”

As Artemis suspects, her brother Apollo has been up to his old tricks, spitefully turning humans into cellulose. She gently informs Kate that she is now a eucalyptus. “ith variegated leaves?” the tree asks anxiously, ” ‘Yes,’ said Artemis, ‘Green and yellow.’ The tree seemed pleased. ‘Oh well, there’s that to be grateful for.’ ” After a pause the tree continues, “You’re the goddess of hunting and chastity then?”

With the single word “then” — an idiomatic pinprick that deflates even the grandeur of a goddess — we seem to have strayed from gentle surrealism into a Monty Python sketch. Exuberant satire surely lies ahead; the novel’s plot promises as much.

In present-day London, the 12 Greek Gods of Olympus — Artemis, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Eros, Demeter, Ares, Dionysus, Hermes, Zeus, Hera, Hades, and Persephone — share a filthy, dilapidated house that was a bargain when the family bought it after the plague in 1665. The deities grate on each other while their diminished powers dwindle further. Some even work for a living: Aphrodite, goddess of love, is a phone sex operator; Apollo, god of the sun, is a daytime television psychic; Artemis is a professional dog walker.

Vestiges of Olympian power endure — Ares starts wars, Apollo keeps the sun running — but as pantheons go, this is an uninspiring, even depressing crowd. We meet Apollo and Aphrodite as they copulate mechanically in the bathroom. “Looking down at the back of her head, her glossy black hair curling down over the alabaster slope of her shoulders, he could almost imagine that he was screwing Catherine Zeta-Jones. He wondered if he could persuade Aphrodite to speak to him in Welsh. Just for the novelty. Anything for novelty.”

Novelty arrives in the unlikely form of Alice, a mortal, who unwittingly becomes the house cleaner to these slovenly gods when she loses her job as an office cleaner at the nearby television station. Until that career change, Alice’s idea of heaven is being with Neil, a mousy engineer who cannot take the romantic initiative. Even when the perfect opportunity arises, the best he can do is panic and blurt out, “I’ve got Scrabble on my Palm Pilot ? Multiplayer.” Alice produces a carton of orange juice, they agree on the replaceable blank rule, and love is, clearly, just one move away.

This being comedy, it is of course the wrong kind of love between the wrong people. Here the fatal infatuation is mischievously engineered by Aphrodite, who bullies Eros into pricking Apollo with an arrow that will cause him to become enthralled with the first person he sees. Eros’ dart strikes as Apollo is appearing before a television studio audience (Alice and Neil have smuggled themselves in) and the pivotal scene of Apollo being smitten by Alice is all the funnier for being so mundane. “Somehow he got to the end of the show. He’d actually had to go back to that drafty, rotting trailer to masturbate; it was humiliating. He’d wiped the semen that could spawn an entire nation of heroes onto a paper napkin with pictures of snowmen, left over from Christmas, and hid it in the rubbish bin underneath a copy of the Evening Standard.”

In these early passages (we are still not 50 pages along), Phillips displays a wonderfully brisk, faux-innocent style, an eye for the most banal detail, and an ear perfectly attuned to the language of therapeutic daytime television and of management doublespeak. Like any worthwhile satirist, she is merciless not only with her main characters but also with the world they inhabit. The England of her novel is one in which Artemis, being shown around an appalling flat by an oily realtor, looks out the window to the car park where “?.a group of schoolchildren kicked a smaller child who was lying curled up on the ground in front of them, shielding its head with its hands.” When she looks again, moments later, “One of the children had detached itself from the group and was now filming the proceedings on its phone.” This England and these gods seem to deserve each other.

The theme of the almighty dwelling among mortals is, of course, a staple of myth, religion and comedy. Sue Townsend, for example, in her wonderful 1992 novel, The Queen and I, depicted the Royal Family ejected from their palaces and living in squalid public housing with Princess Diana scouring the thrift shops for designer bargains. Gods Behaving Badly ups the ante by imagining the gods themselves dwelling alongside drab Londoners. It is a comical idea. Turning it into a comic novel, however, means turning the gods into characters, something that is easier to do with the Royal Family, whose members are at least recognizably human.

Phillips initially carries off the transformation. Bossy, practical Artemis, bitchy Aphrodite, dimwitted Apollo: all materialize convincingly on the page; more convincingly, in fact, than do timid Alice and Neil. Halfway through the novel, however, when the drama descends to the Underworld (exquisitely depicted as a Mock Tudor suburban hell) the narrative loses its distinctive London accent and takes on the wisecracking tone of a buddy movie. Satire evaporates as action takes over, and the final chapters become a frantic grand finale. All the big ideas are rushed on stage: Love. Guilt. Belief. Christianity. Eco-disaster.

When the sun is suddenly extinguished and mortals panic, Aphrodite suggests the unthinkable.

“Maybe we should just let it happen.” They all turned to her. Her perfect face was cold. “Give up,” she said, “let the planet die. Conserve our strength until we can create something new, somewhere else. Somewhere better than this. Aren’t you sick of it? I’m sick of it.”

Had Phillips entertained this heretical idea she might have written an impressively bleak comedy. Instead, she concludes her fairy tale with the un-funniest idea of all: faith in humanity.