According to Wikipedia, Eileen Myles is not the first to do a retelling of Dante’s Inferno. There’s also:
- Inferno (novel), a 1976 novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
- Inferno (Star Wars novel), a 2007 novel by Troy Denning
- Inferno (Strindberg), an 1897 novel by August Strindberg
- Isaac Asimov’s Inferno, a 1994 novel by Roger MacBride Allen
- Inferno, a novel in the Bionicle Legends series
And in music:
- Infernö, a Norwegian thrash metal-band
- Inferno Metal Festival, annual music festival in Oslo, Norway
- Inferno (Motörhead album)
- Inferno – Last in Live, an album by Dio
- Inferno, an album by Alien Sex Fiend
- “Inferno”, a song by Kreator from Voices of Transgression – A 90s Retrospective
- “Inferno (Unleash the Fire)”, a song by Symphony X from The Odyssey
…Among the most notable. So, what is it, exactly, that sets Eileen Myles’ Inferno: A Poet’s Novel apart from all the rest?
There are few cooler things I can imagine than being Eileen Myles in the 1970’s. Actually, it probably sucked at least a little bit, at least in the beginning, if Inferno: A Poet’s Novel is as autobiographical as it suggests. Myles states in an interview:
I think when you don’t tell everything, you’re editing as much as you are when you’re editing. … I told things sometimes in their own kind of separate light, and that was a kind of withholding information. And there were things I put in very deliberately — I was getting research money to do it — but also because I just wanted to have the character go to Dante’s grave . . . [from “Bad Mirror: A Talk with Eileen Myles]
But the book does a lot more than just blur the lines of “fiction” and “non-fiction,” as poets are want to do. Inferno will probably become the next On The Road of our generation. Although the book is similar to Dante’s Inferno in structure and (some may say loosely) in theme, being divided into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, it definitely reads as a great American novel. And I feel like it’s been a long time since we had one of those, specifically one written by a poet the way the aforementioned books are. There is something about these books and the way they are able to capture the most subversive, at times even ugly, ideas surrounding the elusive “American dream,” and transform it into a manifesto against the status quo, thus transforming this dream into something other than success. Myles has a long list of books she imitated in this process–The Bell Jar and Tropic of Cancer being some of the most noteworthy. Her biggest influences in composing this book were autobiographical works written about writers, and especially written by those who are primarily poets.
Now, I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow or every single Chuck Kloisterman book. But I have a good feeling that Myles’ Inferno is going to stand as an important piece of literature, written in the early 21st century about life in the late 20th century, in decades to come, and not because she has imitated other great (now classic) novels so well. Eileen Myles has a distinct style that sets her apart from (or among) those who have come before. Harkening back to On The Road, her use of language is so uninhibited–unlike Kerouac, who was slammed by publishers for lack of punctuation, Myles actually pulls it off. Like many other writers I admire, her tone is conversational to the extent of both throwing rules of language out the window while inventing new ones.
Another reason this book is immensely important is its treatment of the “lesbian experience.” I almost hate using that phrase, because I don’t think that this is a book that should be read by every lesbian or can even be categorized as a “lesbian” book, but that’s also a triumph of Myles’ treatment of sexuality. The book includes and subsequently chronicles the narrator’s discovery of her homosexuality. But since the entire book is more like a chronicle of self-discovery, the major importance of her “sexual awakening” (what a terrible phrase) blends seamlessly with everything else she’s experiencing — poverty then success, prostitution then love, drinking then drugs, etc etc etc. In terms of “queer” literature, this book stands out to me, because I can’t think of any other example of work that both addresses the author’s homosexuality enough to transform it into a literary theme, and yet execute it in such a way that it would simply be a shame to write off or categorize the larger work at hand.
Like many other writers I admire, Myles’ reading style is so distinguishable, once you hear her read her own work you will forever hear her voice reading her work to you in your head whenever you read it. Dig? (If you don’t believe me, you can read the excerpt from the video here.)
Inferno could easily be the best novel I’ve read in all of 2011 (to be honest, I don’t think any other novels I’ve read even made it to my Top Books list). I give it ***** and recommend it to everyone, but especially to poets, writers, former suicide cases, and those who long for urbanized salvation/artistic success.