Marvin Mann & A. David Lewis, Some New Kind of Slaughter; or; Lost in the Flood (and How We Found Home Again): Diluvian Myths from Around the World (Archaia, 2009). $19.95, hardcover.
By Elizabeth Hewitt
I wanted to love this book. Despite its absurdly byzantine title, I was delighted by the conceit of spinning a tale around the variety of diluvian myths used to describe godly disappointment with human life. A quick glimpse through its pages revealed the gorgeous art and style that I’ve come to expect from Archaia. I ripped it from Mr. Guttergeek’s hands and announced, “I’ll review it. Let me review it!”
And there is no doubt about the book’s beauty—both aesthetic and emotional. It clearly has tremendous potential to be a moving and educational experience. But that said, I confess I finished it disappointed. I assumed, however, my disappointment was a consequence of my own inadequacy. The narrative, after all, is complex, since Mann and Lewis chose to divide the basic flood story into four parts—Warnings, Preparations, Deluge, and Aftermath—and then they weave together a variety of different tales into a single narrative strand. We do not, then, read these various myths in sequence, but as entwined narratives. We move in and out of the Sumerian story of Ziusudra, the Judeo-Christian tale of Noah, the Brazilian myth of Sommay and his sons, the story of a 21st-century meteorologist searching for her daughter, the Chinese tale of Fu Xi and Nuwa, as well as others. Sometimes we shift at the turn of the page, sometimes a figure or character from another myth reveals himself in a single panel.
The decision to combine the stories this way is clearly meant to represent what seems to be the philosophical argument of the entire book, which is that the basic structure of all these flood myths are the same. In all cases, there is the premonition of the flood and the terror of the devastation that is so particular to rising waters. In each case, we discover those who find some way to float about the chaos and destruction and their relief and solace in imagining an end to the deluge. And yet Lewis’s storytelling does not ultimately work to underscore these universal mythic templates, instead focusing on the tiny details of each of these domestic dramas. Mann’s art likewise focuses on the particular and even more than Lewis his stylistic shifts between each of the individual tales has the added effect of emphasizing distinction rather than drawing the stories closer to one another. The problem, then, is that what Lewis and Mann emphasize is is not the similitude of one myth to another—not that each depicts the same tale of flood and redemption—but that each new kind of slaughter is, in fact, new and different. Thus, the frequent shifts between one story and the next (which happen at irregular, but also frequent, intervals) is jarring and disorienting.
Were the emphasis simply on the universal template, such shifts would be fine. I could read the book as a piece of structuralist cultural anthropology. And, indeed, it would seem that the authors’ macroscopic imagination of the book was to be precisely this. Yet, if this global vision was the original motive for the project, then the pleasure seems not to lie in the book’s superstructure. Rather the book’s beauty—its emotional force—is located in the variety of minutiae uncovered in the telling of each individual myth. In this way, the book’s cumbersome title is symptomatic: with title piled on top of title, the authors reveal their own indecision as to whether to emphasize the mythic or the lyric. While I admire them for wanting to do so much, I can’t help but wish they were a little less at sea.