With The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon revives ancient ethics
As an experienced teacher of creative writing, Annabel Lyon is well aware of the wisdom in that old adage “Write what you know.” But she has also critiqued enough student fiction to understand that there’s no faster route to the world of cliché than the autobiographical novel. So when she decided to make the leap from short fiction to the longer form, Lyon quickly determined that she was not going to deal with leaving home, first sexual experiences, or any of the other staples of the dewy and self-obsessed.
By setting The Golden Mean (Random House Canada, $32.95), her just-published debut novel, in ancient Greece, she seems to have successfully skirted anything that has even the faintest whiff of her own story.
Or has she?
Some psychological imperatives are just too strong to suppress, and midway through a late-afternoon chat with the Georgia Straight, Lyon admits there is more than a little of herself in her book’s central character. “I suppose I did end up doing that in a way,” the UBC instructor muses over coffee at the Hotel Vancouver. “I just set it 2,400 years ago and became a man.
“So there it is,” she continues. “Shoot! See, I thought I’d escaped it. I’m just realizing now I didn’t at all. Oh, that’s terrible.”
A lesser talent might be crushed by this revelation, but Lyon is laughing, perhaps amused by her own hubris—or, more likely, cheered by the idea that there’s also a lot of her protagonist in her own makeup. The pioneering scientist and philosopher Aristotle is the primary figure in The Golden Mean, which covers his life from childhood through to the seven years he spent as tutor to Alexander of Macedonia. Some contend that he gave the young prince the self-possession and insight he needed to become Great, and while that remains conjecture, Lyon has no doubts that Aristotle remains the major inspiration in her intellectual and artistic life.
For a few years in her 20s—after realizing that she wasn’t skilled enough to pursue a career as a concert pianist and before discovering her considerable literary talent—Lyon studied philosophy. She was particularly interested in the history of that discipline, and out of all the ancient thinkers she encountered, Aristotle was the one who spoke most clearly to her 20th-century mind.
“He was a very holistic thinker, and one of the first, I think,” she says of her long-dead mentor. “He was a great categorizer, and he believed that there were essential relationships between everything—between biology and metaphysics and astronomy and law and literature. Everything fit together in an overall grand scheme, and so he was very interested in what we would now call interdisciplinary studies. Things got fractured in the 18th and 19th centuries, as people specialized in narrower and narrower fields, but he was not that—and now we see his notions being brought back again.”
Lyon is so intrigued by Aristotle’s integrated world that she turns to his writings in times of stress—such as the perilous months that followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“I went through what lots of other people in the arts went through, which was wondering whether what I was doing made any sense, or had any relevance to what was going on,” she explains. “For the first little while, I struggled to read fiction; it just didn’t seem to bear any connection to what was going on in the world. But I did pick up my Aristotle and started reading that again, and it did seem very relevant.
“I realize that this just sounds incredibly pretentious and geeky,” the New Westminster–based author adds, “but it’s what I did. Literally, it is what I did: I picked up the Nicomachean Ethics and just started reading. And I thought, ”˜Yeah! What is a good life? What is a tragedy? What is the role of man in society—or woman, as the case may be?’ And it all continued to fascinate me, just as it had when I was an undergrad.”
Weighty philosophical threads—the meaning of art, the meaning of life—run through The Golden Mean, but these themes are always contextualized within human relationships. This is by no means a textbook masquerading as a novel—even if, at one point, Lyon’s Aristotle delivers a brief lecture on the way art can “convey ideas in an accessible way, and in a way that makes the reader or the viewer feel what is being told rather than just hear it.”
If that was Lyon’s goal, she’s achieved it, in a book which, remarkably, reminds us that ethical behaviour is at the heart of what it means to be human, while making us feel as close to its near-legendary subjects as we do to our own friends and neighbours.