• Drawn + Quarterly

Anders Nilsen is not the first person to write stories about ancient gods in the modern world—check out Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, for starters—but the stories in his new book, The Rage of Poseidon, take the conceit a bit further. They are myths, as strange and enigmatic as the Greek originals. They’re accompanied by silhouette drawings, a departure from Nilsen’s usual painterly style. You could say that the drawings are mythological because you can find a myriad of meanings in the outlines, but that might be reading too much into it. The way Nilsen tells it, the whole concept began as an accident.

“Joe Meno, who’s a friend—I did the illustrations for a book of his stories—was doing a reading and invited me to read, too,” Nilsen recalls. “I felt like doing a reading of comics doesn’t go well, but I had a few stories from my sketchbooks that I could use for a slide reading. They were fragments about gods and Greek myths and Bible stories. The silhouettes came because I didn’t have a lot of time and they were fast. But it turned out they had a very evocative and iconic power to them.”

Nilsen insisted that the finished book be an art object in itself. The pages are bound together in one long strip of paper that’s been accordion-folded to fit between the two covers. The idea is that people can look at multiple images as once.

Some of the stories are lighthearted, like the short fragment about Jesus picking up Aphrodite in a bar in heaven (“Me and my dad run this whole place”). Some are poignant, like the retelling of the binding of Isaac that shows what happens when Abraham and Isaac get home after the abortive sacrifice.

  • Anders Nilsen

Many are tragicomic, like the title story, about Poseidon’s gradual ebbing of power until the sea god finds himself wandering aimlessly through a summer resort in Wisconsin. (“They’ve invented a wonderful libation they call ‘iced latte.’ It’s second only to the divine ambrosia of Olympus.”) “‘These are the beings that supplanted us,’ you think . . . . Your mind reels at the thought. It’s horrifying in a way. Humiliating. Yet despite the horrors, you find yourself smiling to yourself. ‘It’s funny,’ you think, “it’s actually funny.'”

Most of the stories in The Rage of Poseidon are written in the second person like that. “It’s a device I used in the sketchbook scripts,” Nilsen says. “It’s a way of addressing the reader, bringing the reader in more. And it begs the question, ‘Who is the narrator?’ With the third person, you have the voice of God in a way. God is the only one who knows what everyone is doing and thinking. The way I’m using [second person], there’s a mystery. There’s no person named. It points out the absurdity of the whole idea of storytelling, that there’s a conceit and you accept it and don’t think about it. I found it compelling.”

As a kid, Nilsen loved myths and fairy tales. His grandfather, to whom the book is dedicated, was a Lutheran minister, so he learned his Bible stories, too.

“Taking old stories that are 4,000 years old, you think they’re not relevant,” he says. “But if you bring them into the present day, you see they’re stories about what it means to be human. The story about Athena [“The Girl and the Lion,” in which the goddess becomes obsessed with the story of an early Christian martyr and eventually decides to live as a mortal] is one anyone can relate to, in a way. It’s a story about coming of age, about growing older and losing your illusions.

“I really am sort of interested in the idea of taking stories and updating them and reclaiming them from fundamentalist religion,” he continues. “I think it’s sort of a tragedy that stories from the Bible have been claimed and owned by people who think they’re literally true. And we’ve abandoned them to those people. They’re great stories. We can claim them without having to abandon our responsibilities at the door. They’re wonderful and absurd. That’s the paradox of them. Pointing out paradoxes is fun, but I’m into accepting weird internal logic and taking it to its own conclusion.”

Anders Nilsen will be doing a slide reading of stories from The Rage of Poseidon and then discussing his work with Jessica Hopper on Sun 12/15 at 4 PM at City Lit Books (2523 N. Kedzie).

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.