Combine Hermes, Cupid, and Morpheus and you’ll get a rough sketch of Angus, the Celtic god of Dreams, Love, and Youth. Alexander McCall Smith seeks to introduce us to this charming, slightly mercurial beau of youth and youthfulness, and his effort falls in with a larger trend of combining the modern with the mythic, most notably present in the work of Neil Gaiman, but also in more recent incarnations such as Marie Phillips’ Gods Behaving Badly. McCall Smith uses subtle methods to craft a contemporary mythology. The ten stories alternate between the vaguely in-the-past world of Angus and our own, replete with Angus-esque figures to remind us that—just in case we forgot—we’re reading a book of modern myths.
The biggest shame of this book is that it seems McCall Smith is getting a lot right. The prose is subdued and ambiguous, adopting the common language of storybook myth. Characters are less people than constellations in the myth. The treatment of reality is decidedly devoid of rigor, allowing hard-line truth to melt away and the story of the myth, rather than the concrete facts of an individual story, to take center stage. The text aspires to a dreamy sensuality whose greatest goal isn’t answers but titillation. It’s just that all of these mechanics are used poorly, betraying their effect.
While psychologically profound, relatable characters are generally avoided in these myths lest their human individuality detract from the global story, that doesn’t mean we should expect them to be wooden. Particularly in the contemporary stories, a cast that deviates even slightly from the most two-dimensional of stereotypes would have been nice. Behold the spiritual anguish of the wife of a wealthy, heartless businessman:
“She felt bored, even trapped, but she stuck to the marriage because she depended on him. She liked luxury; she liked not having to worry about money, and most of all, she could not face the prospect of having to work for a living.”
How are we supposed to find characters like this engaging? She’s not the only one of her kind. There is also the idyllic pair of brothers whose relationship is tested by different stages of life, the beautiful girl with an overprotective father, the young, unambitious dreamer—none of these evoke any emotion and stand for ideas so obvious they hardly require representation. Hence, while McCall Smith claims that “Angus does no particular moral or didactic work: he is really about dreams and about love,” his tales either follow a binary good-or-evil/dreamer-or-not setup, or go no further into developing ideas than some vague protean notion of “dreams” in the most abstract terms.
The writing style also fails to cultivate the atmosphere conducive to this project. It is simple and subtle, but that’s because it’s quiet to the point of invisibility. The language does nothing for the narrative as it is devoid of imagery or style. It even fails in aspects of its simplicity, as many passages serve no real purpose. Instead of clean, concise storytelling, which would have livened up the text and fit more in line with myth, this language dawdles at times and for the most part is banal. Insofar as this is supposed to be a retelling of the stories of Angus (and an introduction to him for most), it does nothing to promote excitement about the god or what he represents.
The first eight stories are short, largely pointless accounts of plot and not much else. They alternate between telling the story of Angus and his (predictable) exploits and cases in our world that are generally uninteresting. Some may find something to latch on to, but nothing grasps at the reader. The last two stories hold more potential, with improvements in almost every category. The writing finally gets some personality; consider the opening line from “Is There a Place for Pigs There?”:
“Pig Twenty, a male, donor of magic skin, was the son of Pig Nineteen, a large, lazy sow whose sole interest was food.” The parallel comma breaks establish an effective comparison, and the language is simple yet evocative. The rest of the paragraph talks about how much Pig Nineteen loved food. Perhaps if the story had something to do with Pig Nineteen, cravings for food, or the relationship between Pig Twenty and Pig Nineteen, this would be in some way relevant. As it stands, it’s just another aspect of dawdling.
I very much want to give McCall Smith credit for this kind of work. I love re-imaginings of myths and appreciate the way in which he attempts to combine the mythic with the modern, and I was excited to meet a whole new universe of mythology. But the book fails to deliver on nearly all accounts, dressing up tired stories in Celtic garb, and driving me back to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a chronicle about the King of Dreams that is everything a chronicle of this sort should be. With such good writing in the same market, the meager mediocrity of Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams has little place.